Dir/scr. Dante Lam. China | Hong Kong, 2016, 140 mins.

Operation Mekong

Shoot first, ask questions later could be Operation Mekong’s motto, and it’s a sentiment that fits both on-screen and -off. The phrase proves relevant in the thick of the film’s many gunfights and chases, as the story tracks Chinese detectives trying to hunt down a drug syndicate operating in Asia’s opium-abundant Golden Triangle. It also aptly describes writer/director Dante Lam’s (To the Fore) action-oriented approach.

With the feature unfolding with such speed and sleekness, technical contributions prove stellar across the board

Of course, the Hong Kong filmmaker has earned a reputation for his high-impact, high stakes and high body count hijinks but, even so, layering his usual proclivities over a re-creation of the real-life incident dubbed the Mekong River massacre is simultaneously surprising and expected. Going in guns blazing and attempting to set pulses racing might not feel wholly appropriate given the facts at the heart of the film, but it does suit Lam’s usual style — not to mention audiences looking for non-stop thrill ride of a movie.

Since it bowed in theatres in China, that has certainly proven the case, the film continuing to top the local box office. Gradually making its way through international territories via either limited releases or film festival appearances will see the feature attract a broader audience, though it could simply become a placeholder for another take on the tale down the track. An English-language remake hasn’t been announced but, thanks to every frenetic frame of Lam’s effort, it feels almost inevitable.

Indeed, there’s plenty of aspects to the violent events of October 5, 2011, that could sustain several big screen versions. On a stretch of the Mekong River bordering Myanmar and Thailand, two cargo ships took fire, 13 Chinese fisherman lost their lives, and 900,000 methamphetamine pills surfaced in the aftermath. Enter Chinese authorities intent on doing whatever it takes to bring the culprits to justice and stem the flow of narcotics in the region. Guided by Captain Gao Gang (Zhang Hanyu) with the assistance of undercover operative Fang Xinwu (Eddie Peng), they attempt to take down ruthless, murderous kingpin Naw Kham (Pawarith Monkolpisit).

It’s a deadly pursuit, but someone has to do it — and someone else has to reduce all that police work down to its broadest strokes. Subtlety, dialogue, taking a break between gun battles: none of these are Lam’s strong suit, and nor is sticking to the facts. Even those unacquainted with the actual details will spy the many liberties the helmer and his four co-scribes take, all in the name of boosting the feature’s entertainment quota. Just as blatant and apparent is the nationalistic sentiment, championing the heroics of China’s law enforcement, and skimming over the contributions of the other members of the titular taskforce.

And yet, what Lam does, he does well; Operation Mekong’s tense, tightly constructed, expertly shot mid-film shopping centre shootout is a masterclass in inventively and engagingly staged action. In fact, it’s such a show-stopper that everything that follows pales in comparison, including child soldiers, river firefights and jungle frays, though the filmmaker keeps the pace fast and the onslaught of altercations furious.

With the feature unfolding with such speed and sleekness, technical contributions prove stellar across the board — so much so that finding just the right scenic background for a conversation or maintaining a gleeful sense of energy often seems to dictate Lam’s choices, rather than servicing the narrative. Cinematographer Yuen Man Fung and editor David M. Richardson are each gifted a considerable showcase of their talents as a result, with the entire film acting as a 140-minute highlights reel for both.

Though the same can’t quite be said for Hanyu and Peng, they navigate their mismatched buddy cop dynamic without devolving into comedic caricature, stick-on facial hair and all. And, amidst the kinetic chaos, Peng imbues his brooding protagonist’s perfunctory backstory with more resonance than the by-the-numbers material calls for. Their performances might not hinge upon nuance, but they do prove more than adequate in a film otherwise populated by a memorable canine and an army-sized array of nondescript figures.

Lam doesn’t do things by halves, after all; instead, playing in big, loud and entertaining territory is his aim, and one that he achieves.

Production company: Beijing Huaming Xingkong International Media Company, Beijing Yuntu Entertainment Company, Bona Film Group, Bona International Film Group, Dream Sky Entertainment Company, Film Fireworks, Sun Entertainment Culture, Yiyi International Entertainment (Beijing) Company

Sales: Distribution Workshop, dw@distributionworkshop.com

Producer: Candy Leung, Jianxin Huang

Executive producer: Yu Dong

Associate producer: Alvin Chow

Screenwriters: Dante Lam, Kang Ki Chu, Siu Kwan Lau, Eric Lin, Wai Ching Tam

Cinematography: Yuen Man Fung

Editor: David M Richardson

Music: Julian Chan, Henry Lai, Kwan Fai Lam

Cast: Eddie Peng, Zhang Hanyu, Carl Ng, Ken Lo, Pawarith Monkolpisit, Jonathan Wu, Vithaya Pansringarm