"Get God on the phone... Tell him it's me... Tell him we need more time..."
As the Korean War rages on with Northern troops surging forward to take and occupy ever-greater territory in Korea, US General Douglas MacArthur (Liam Neeson) – head of United Nations Command – sends eight elite South Korean soldiers on a covert assignment far behind enemy lines. Led by Navy Lieutenant Jang Hak-soo (Lee Jung-jae), this ‘X-Ray’ intelligence unit’s mission is to infiltrate North Korean headquarters, sabotage the North’s battle plans and clear the way for a US/South Korean naval incursion of Incheon, code-named Operation Chromite, in the hope it will turn the tide of the war once and for all.
However, the X-Ray Unit soldiers are fully aware that not only are they being asked the virtually impossible but also that their perilous assignment may very well ultimately turn out to be a suicide mission...
As Battle for Incheon: Operation Chromite is based on true events, the film begins with a series of pictorial representations of key players involved in Operation Chromite campaign and the lead-up to it, some – such as US President Harry S. Truman – being real life historical images while others - Douglas MacArthur, Jang Hak-soo, etc. - are shown as depicted in the film. Accompanying these images are brief written explanations the progress of the war that specifically led to Operation Chromite and these visuals and text combined give a succinct and wholly relevant overview of the forces at play in a far more natural way than could be achieved by clunky narration that has appeared much too readily at the start of numerous films, recent or not, regardless of whether you consider Korean films specifically or indeed Western movies.
However, that being said, Operation Chromite does indeed feature such narrated dialogue (a cinema trope I have always had issue with, and always will) in the latter stages of proceedings, but more on that later.
Following this historical story framing, Operation Chromite briefly introduces us to General MacArthur, complete with his virtually trademark – some might even say iconic – massive wooden pipe, before taking us to the first violent altercation of Jang Hak-soo and his X-Ray Unit to enable its infiltration of the North’s headquarters, setting up the tension effectively, almost from the very outset.
Following this early lead-in scene, the main narrative gets underway with Jang and his cohorts impersonating North Korean operatives in the heart of enemy territory, desperately trying to hold firm in the face of consistently twisted North Korean commander Lee Gye-jin’s (Lee Beom-soo) suspicions that they may not be who they claim.
It soon becomes pretty obvious that the character driven parts of Operation Chromite will largely centre on the growing tension and lack of trust between these two men and as such one can easily tell, even in these early stages, that their character arcs cannot fail to culminate in a mano-a-mano fight to the death.
Predictable though that may be and is, especially considering the fact that the outcome of the battle side of proceedings will already be known to anyone with even a vague knowledge of the historical event, it does work fairly well as a plotline running parallel to X-Ray Unit’s actual spy mission. However, virtually no time is given to character depth – both men standing more as caricatures than fully fleshed out individuals especially in the case of Northern commander Lee Gye-jin who is depicted as an almost cartoonish ‘evil personified’ character set against Jang Hak-soo’s ever moral, right-on-his-side hero. While that is kind of understandable since this is the story of the selfless sacrifice of eight incredibly brave men for their country, it does come across as somewhat pushed.
Cinematically, Operation Chromite is for the large part a beautiful looking film with director John H Lee excelling to the greatest degree in the many chase/fight/shootout scenes. That said, the CGI used in the incursion scenes in the latter stages of the film is very noticeably CGI and the less than perfect rendering is rather a shame in what should have been the most breath-taking and explosive section of the story.
John H Lee also attempts to add extra emotion into a number of scenes: During a shootout, one scene goes into slow motion while the sound of gunfire fades to be replaced by soaring, emotive music; or the introduction of a young, beautiful female character who becomes almost
a love interest for Jang Hak-soo (the one character introduction I wish had been extended further), complete with melodramatic arc; etc.
While none of these particularly brought a tear to my eye, I didn’t necessarily have a problem with the majority, except one... a character goes to where his mother lives but leaves before she realises he’s watching her and later, as he lies dying, he speaks to her by narration (the very narration I mentioned earlier) – even though she isn’t there – saying that alive or dead he’ll always be at her side. Forced, contrived and to my mind totally unnecessary.
The vast majority of the cast performances in Operation Chromite are perfectly fine, even accomplished, and not deserving of any particular criticism. However, the one role that to my mind leaves a lot to be desired is that of Liam Neeson as General MacArthur. Anyone who has watched Neeson in any number of his American movies, good or bad, will likely be fully aware of his inability to give a decent, believable American accent and certainly, from a personal point of view, the fact that he and I both originally hail from Northern Ireland means I can’t help but hear his Ballymena brogue screaming out of whatever accent he is attempting.
As far as the US films where he plays fictional characters are concerned, you could almost let that fly by telling yourself that the character being portrayed really does have a strange hybrid kind of accent (it’s at least possible, in any case), but in Operation Chromite he’s playing a real person – and a famous and wholly American one, at that – and as such Neeson’s voice going from sort of American to wholly Northern Irish, to a weird mixture of the two and back again instantly destroys any believability in his portrayal whatsoever, pulling viewers out of any narrative immersion in the process. I assume this wouldn’t be a big an issue for audiences for whom English is not their first language, but for native English speakers, as far as I’m concerned, this is pretty much a deal breaker.
In fact, Neeson’s weirdly morphing accent is so noticeable that it comes across as almost funny at times, and that frankly is the last thing a serious war drama about an important historical event needs.
Not only that, but some of Neeson/MacArthur’s dialogue, while aiming to be driven, rousing and even poetic, is cheesy verging on cringe-worthy. In one statement, MacArthur says “Get God on the phone. Tell him it’s me. Tell him we need more time” while in another he vehemently states that he doesn’t care about the wrinkles on his skin caused by aging because he still has his ideals and he knows the setting aside of ideals puts wrinkles on the soul. If I can paraphrase, such utterly contrived declarations put wrinkles on my brain.
CJ Entertainment will release Battle for Incheon: Operation Chromite on DVD and Blu-ray in the US on 24 January 2017, extras comprising of a ‘Making Of’ featurette and the official trailer. There is also the option of watching the film with its original Korean soundtrack and subtitles or as an English dubbed version and, while I personally always prefer original soundtrack and subs, the dubbed version may appeal to those Western viewers who tend not to watch that many subtitled foreign language films and have been drawn to Operation Chromite because of Liam Neeson’s involvement.
A film is only as strong as its weakest link, and in the case of Battle for Incheon: Operation Chromite the weakest link by far is Liam Neeson’s cringe-worthy dialogue, and indeed tortured performance, as General Douglas MacArthur.
BATTLE FOR INCHEON: OPERATION CHROMITE (인천상륙작전) / 2016 / Directed by John H Lee