It’s hard for me to believe, since part of me still thinks of him as the local kid I heard about growing up who got cast in Not Another Teen Movie, but Chris Evans is the star of the biggest movie of all time. Not Leonardo DiCaprio. Not Sam Worthington. No, it was Evans’ Captain America who recently led Avengers: Endgame to the ultimate box office crown. With the MCU now firmly in Evans’ rear-view mirror, it’s going to be interesting to see what the future holds for him. I still don’t think Evans is quite on the level of some of his peers, but he is steadily improving as a dramatic actor, and though it’s been five years since he really challenged himself outside of the MCU, the new Netflix movie The Red Sea Diving Resort offers Evans his meatiest opportunity yet.
The film is based on the incredible true story of a group of international agents who used a deserted hotel in Sudan as a front to smuggle thousands of Jewish refugees out of Ethiopia in the early ’80s. It was written, directed and produced by Gideon Raff, whose name I recognize from the credits of one of my favorite TV shows, Homeland — itself an international espionage thriller. The title might be a little clunky, but no one thought Argo was a great title either, and look how that movie turned out. It won Best Picture. The Red Sea Diving Resort won’t win any Oscars (not that it’s eligible anyway), but the story works on its own terms, and the seaside setting is inherently cinematic.
Evans plays Mossad agent Ari Levinson, first seen doing push-ups in the back of a pickup truck. I wish I was kidding about this, but I’m not. Ari works for the Israeli government, and he and his longtime pal Sammy Navon (Alessandro Nivola) have been helping a courageous community leader named Kabede Bimro (Michael K. Williams) smuggle thousands of brave Ethiopian Jews out of the country and into Jerusalem, where they will be free from religious persecution. Together, they strive to “leave no one behind.”
Sammy is a trauma doctor whose confidence has been shaken after suffering an injury to his hand, and it’s his adrenaline-fueled friendship with the more impulsive Ari that serves as the primary relationship in the film. Their friendship is built on a mutual pursuit of danger, and because of that, there’s a tension between them that always simmers beneath the surface. The two of them are eventually joined on their noble mission by Haley Bennett (The Girl on the Train), Michiel Huisman (Game of Thrones) and Alex Hassell, who can currently be seen — or not — as the often-nude Translucent on Amazon’s The Boys.
This quintet of international agents devise a plan to take over the strategically located Red Sea Diving Resort in Sudan and use the dilapidated hotel to temporarily house refugees as they await transportation to Jerusalem. When a bus full of German tourists mistake the resort for an actual, functional hotel, they unknowingly wind up providing the perfect cover for Ari and his team, who must now cater to guests during the day while carrying out their dangerous missions at night. But as thousands of refugees disappear from local camps, the Sudanese military begins to catch on, and they find the new, white hoteliers awfully suspicious.
I’ll be honest, for the first 30 minutes or so, I was skeptical about RSDR‘s prospects, but it turns out that the film just needs some time to settle in, because by the end, it did win me over. Why? Because this is simply a good story. I don’t see how anyone can really deny that, and a good story goes a long way in my book. But every good story — well, most — needs a good villain, and the real reason that this film’s second half plays much better than its first comes down to the arrival of Chris Chalk. Best known for playing Lucius Fox on Gotham, Chalk provides the villain that this film sorely needs. As Sudanese military leader Col. Abdel Ahmed, he gives us someone to root against, and that’s an essential ingredient when you’re trying to satisfy an audience. With a lit cigar smoldering beneath his dead-eye stare, Chalk reminded me of a cross between Daniel Kaluuya in Widows and Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation. Raff conjures some strong moments of genuine suspense while Col. Ahmed and his men search the resort for the hidden refugees, and Chalk’s scenes were the highlight for me.
Lending the proceedings further weight and gravitas are Oscar winners Ben Kingsley and Greg Kinnear. The former plays an Israeli government official who’s skeptical of Ari’s plan, but doesn’t have a better one, while the latter plays a CIA bureaucrat torn between nabbing Ari and his team, and helping them. Kinnear gets the film’s best line involving the Hebrew word “shalom,” but Nivola probably has the best material to play with overall, and along with Chalk, he’s the clear standout here, as he makes Sammy feel like a real person with self-doubts and resentments. Huisman and Hassell are given little to work with, and I can’t say there’s much to Bennett’s character, either, as she’s more or less relegated to concierge while the men go off on missions — not that she doesn’t get to engage in some hand-to-hand combat of her own.
But if there’s one character who comes up short here, through no fault of the actor, it’s Kabede Bimro, the leader of the Ethiopian Jews who puts his own life on the line to ensure that no one is left behind. Michael K. Williams has made a career out of playing bad guys, so it’s nice to see him switch things up here. However, Kabede is supposed to be the heart and soul of this movie, and unfortunately, the character feels too underwritten to allow for much emotional impact. I would’ve given this movie a B+ if it had tugged at my heartstrings just a little bit more, but Red Sea Diving Resort just isn’t that kind of movie.
In the end, the success of this film rests on Evans’ shoulders, and while he’s more than serviceable here, and his hair looks great, I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest that he has a certain ceiling as a dramatic actor, at least as far as I’ve seen. I thought he was great in the MCU, and I think he excels with comedy (see Scott Pilgrim and the Knives Out trailer), but he just doesn’t have the dramatic weight this kind of film requires to truly soar. So while I’ll recommend Red Sea Diving Resort, I will warn you that it’s long (apprx. 129 minutes), it gets off to a rocky start, and Evans still has room for improvement when he’s not holding Cap’s trademark shield.
I invoked Argo above because it’s clear that The Red Sea Diving Resort desperately wants to be Argo, right down to its funky ’70s setting and race-to-an-airplane ending. It may not be as good as Ben Affleck‘s Best Picture winner, but that’s a high bar, and as far as Netflix movies go, this one has to count among the streamer’s better releases. In fact, it’s more satisfying than Netflix’s own Affleck movie Triple Frontier, and I’m willing to bet it cost a lot less, too. Without the MCU to fall back on, Evans will be forced to redefine himself as a leading man, and this streaming effort is worth diving into to see his progression as an actor, as it proves he doesn’t need superpowers to play a hero… you just have to surround him with the right team.