Captain America is ... Captain Israel?
Well, yes, but not exactly. Deception is where most of the fun lies in The Red Sea Diving Resort, an espionage caper loosely based on an actual operation run by Israeli secret agents in the early 1980s. There's action, there's drama, there's pathos. But let's not get away from what's important here: There's no shortage of Chris Evans shirtless by the ocean.
Ari Levinson (Evans) is a Mossad operative who gets results, dammit! No, he doesn't do an Israeli accent, but this is later explained with some complex backstory about his life as a wandering refugee. His boss -- the one to whom he is most likely to shout what amounts to I get results, dammit! -- is Sir Ben Kingsley. He's got his typical British accent, but it works on him; why fight it? Kingsley pulls the plug on Levinson's early, politically dangerous maneuvers of extracting members of the Ethiopian Jewish community out of harm's way during a bloody civil war in 1979. Despite perilous crossings (swift rivers! men with guns!), Evans can't bring them to the Promised Land, only as far as a refugee camp in Sudan, which is hardly a bastion of safety and stability, especially for a misunderstood black-Jewish minority.
It kills Evans to leave the families behind, especially his liaison played by Michael K. Williams. Then he cooks up an idea just crazy enough to work. Using a shell corporation, he could effectively buy an old and abandoned Italian-built hotel on the Sudanese coast. With that as a cover, it could be a base of operations to move people under cover of night from the increasingly dangerous refugee camp to waiting Israeli navy ships. There are, however, violent military factions that stand in the way. He's gonna need to assemble a crew. (Always with the assembling, this guy!)
First up is a kickass airline hostess (or was she undercover as an airline hostess?) played by Haley Bennett. She knows krav maga and is gorgeous enough to leave any bribe-hungry bureaucrat tongue-tied. Next is a libertine diving expert played by Michiel Huisman, and finally Ari's old buddy, a field doctor played by Alessandro Nivola whose purpose is to occasionally remind Ari that he's gotten in too deep, dammit!
Okay, so clearly The Red Sea Diving Resort isn't going out of its way to avoid cliché, but there is a stretch in the middle of the film when everything starts to hum. By night, the gang moves desperate refugees to the haven of "Yeru-salem," which they've dreamed about for generations. And by day, Haley Bennett runs aerobics classes for German tourists to Duran Duran. There's also Greg Kinnear as the mostly-disinterested CIA spook who doesn't exactly like what the Mossad is up to, but doesn't make too much effort to stop them.
The action sequences are shot well, but this isn't a Fast and Furious film. That's the trouble with basing a movie on something that actually happened and not too many people know about. Still, director Gideon Raff (creator of the Israeli television show that became Homeland and the forthcoming Sasha Baron-Cohen series The Spy) is good with actors. In the moment, we feel the intensity. After the fact, though, there is a bit of "eh, that wasn't too dangerous. So they drove fast, big deal!" What seems life or death in actual life can sometimes come across as middling in the movies.
Some real world politics cast a bit of a pall on this story: Four decades later, the Ethiopian-Israeli community is, right now, engaged in a very public battle against prejudice within Israel. Raff works hard to get the plight of the refugees across, but other than Williams' composite character, they are somewhat of a blur. His sympathetic face and determination do a lot of heavy lifting, but the scenes of escape don't have quite the intended impact. Nevertheless, this is one of those oddball stories of recent history that rightly deserves to be more than a footnote.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
The Red Sea Diving Resort premieres Wednesday, July 31 on Netflix.