Film Review: “Operation Chromite”

During the Korean War, “Operation Chromite” was the code name given to UN Supreme Commander General Douglas MacArthur’s plan to stage a naval landing operation at the harbor city of Incheon. This military maneuver was designed to counteract North Korea’s invasion of the South in June of 1950 by cutting off the North’s supply line to the South, and enabling the UN forces to drive the North Koreans back across the 38th parallel. This was an exceedingly risky strategy – with 5,000:1 odds of success – due to the forbidding terrain and the narrow two-hour window between tides within which the operation would have to be executed. In the face of opposition from his advisors and superiors, MacArthur forged ahead with this Normandy-like operation.

“Operation Chromite” now lends its name to the latest film from director John H. Lee, which dramatizes the events leading up to this decisive event of the Korean War. Specifically, the film focuses on the covert unit of South Korean soldiers, code named “X-Ray,” who were sent to Incheon to infiltrate the North Korean army – disguised as a NK inspection unit – to gather intelligence on the North Koreans’ defense strategies and the locations of naval mines, and relay this information back to the UN command.

Consequently, “Operation Chromite” plays much more as a spy thriller than a war movie, even though there are some elaborately staged battle scenes. In this recounting, the X-Ray unit is led by Jang Hak-soo (Lee Jung-jae); Jang and the rest of his seven-man team are introduced shooting some North Korean soldiers on a train and taking over their identities. Most of the dramatic tension is generated by Jang’s interactions with Lim Gye-jin (Lee Bum-soo), the North Korean Incheon commander. Portrayed here as unmistakably villainous – but not without a sort of wily charm – Lim’s suspicions of Jang constantly threaten to blow Jang’s cover.

This is not the first time director Lee has tacked the Korean War on film. His 2010 film “71: Into the Fire” told the true story of a group of student-soldiers who defended a school that was a strategic point during the war. “71,” like “Chromite,” traded in melodramatic appeals to patriotism, but this was greatly leavened by its Samuel Fuller-like immersive approach to depicting combat, and made for an intense viewing experience.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for “Operation Chromite,” which lets nothing get in the way of its blunt, unsubtle and sentimental depictions of heroism. Though Lee Jung-jae and most of the cast turn in solid performance work, their characters are so one-dimensional and defined by simplistic motivations concerning protecting family and country, that this mostly dissipates any true emotional resonance.

Most disappointingly, the weakest link here is the usually reliable Liam Neeson, who plays MacArthur. Despite his prominent billing and ubiquity in the film’s marketing campaign, his role is little more than a glorified cameo, with only about 20 minutes or so of screen time, his scenes mostly isolated from the main Korean cast. Neeson gets MacArthur’s mannerisms and gestures right, but he struggles to breathe life into a depiction that comes across more as a talking granite statue than an actual flesh-and-blood human. And that sums up “Operation Chromite”’s main weakness: it treats all its characters as cardboard patriotic symbols rather than actual relatable people.

“Operation Chromite” screened in advance of its U.S. release as part of Korean Movie Night New York’s Premiere Showcase, and is now playing in North American theaters.