Born To Fly Review: Wang Yibo’s Chinese Top Gun Is Neither Sexy Nor Fun
Born To Fly (PG13)
Starring Wang Yibo, Hu Jun, Yu Shi, Zhou Dongyu
Directed by Liu Xiaoshi
Interesting how two sides of the same coin can look so different.
Born To Fly, a high-octane pep rally for China's air force, is dubbed “the Chinese Top Gun”.
It has fighter planes, dogfights, hotshot pilots with a need for speed and a bone to pick with one another, wise old hands, and of course, patriotic chest-beating.
China's national flag flies proudly in the opening scene.
But Tom Cruise wouldn't make this movie.
Nothing to do with the jingoistic lines — “The sky and the land belongs to China”, “I want to perfect our fighter planes to get them to the frontline for revenge”. Any scriptwriter in a parallel universe can turn those quips into Hollywood ones.
It’s just that this pic isn’t sexy or fun enough. No super-cool motorbike, no bomber jacket, no rock songs, no boozy wild time, nor an uncontrollable urge to merge, ala Cruise and Kelly McGillis in Top Gun.
Despite the ace flyboy here, Lei Yu (South Korean-Chinese boyband Uniq’s Wang Yibo), and his gal, military doctor Shen Tianran (Better Days’ Zhou Dongyu), looking dovey-lovey at each other with the discipline of a monk.
One rip-off survives. Debut director/co-writer Liu Xiaoshi, who made promo films for the Chinese military, inserts that pen-twirling bit from 1986 which Val Kilmer's Iceman used to taunt his rival, Cruise’s Maverick. Blink and you'll miss this as Lei — call-signed “Shuke” (after an animation mouse-pilot) — and his chief rival, Deng Fang (Yu Shi) — “Eagle” — share some silly beef over a salute.
The main thing is this. Story-wise, both flicks — East and West versions — are as different as chalk and cheese. Actually, as different as America’s Top Gun is from China’s Golden Helmet, the award the best pilots win here.
Here’s the deal. Born To Fly, a tribute to dogged determination and selfless sacrifice, is basically about 10 speeds slower and less thrilling than both Top Guns. This show’s release was apparently delayed last year to improve its special effects. But it still can't match Top Gun’s massive adrenalin rush.
Primarily since, unlike the cocky, triumphant spin of Top Gun, it’s more about spills than thrills. This pic zooms in not on exciting aerial combat, but on elite test pilots overcoming, quite boringly, test flight after test flight, the multiple failures that lead to the launch of China's first stealth fighter, the Chengdu J-20.
It’s an urgent situation that frustrates everybody from airmen to scientists to even the parachute packer. “The first battle is the final battle,” goes the motivation to keep up the collective spirit.
In Top Gun, the individualistic jocks play volleyball at the beach in flashy slo-mo. Over here, the socially-attuned boys visit graves to pay private respect to aviation martyrs who fell because of inferior, national-humiliation equipment. Their night out is a wholesome trip to their commander's home for dinner at a big communal table to hear about how hard the old times were.
I tell you, it’s simply fascinating to peek behind the bamboo curtain for China’s POV here. More ominously, this looks like the PRC’s movie-cum-foreign-policy-statement regarding how the whole techno game is going to change from now on.
Because Born To Fly is a serious, solemn and expectedly nationalistic film about a deliberately hamstrung air force lagging in outmatched warplanes that are one vital generation behind foreign adversaries.
Due to a technological blockade imposed by Western powers — it's a real thing — China’s military is left severely handicapped as it develops everything in-house all on its own. It needs to catch up with cutting-edge tech asap with its test pilots taking deadly risks to gather “limit data” as they push their jet engines to unknown levels.
Now, the movie doesn't explicitly mention the US by name but we know, clear as day, who the enemy is since the other side goes Yankee-devil arrogant with its sneers over the airwaves.
“This is China Air Force. Anyone who enters Chinese airspace will be resolutely shut down,” the PLA warns them in English to stay out of Chinese territory, presumably over the South China Sea.
“We can come and go wherever we want,” the intruders bark back with cartoonish but emotion-stirring God-Bless-America contempt.
The opening dogfight sees a superior Chinese pilot pulling out of a confrontation when his plane's engine stalls just as he has the enemy targeted right in his missile sight.
Thus, setting off this whole matter about the fate of the entire air force of China depending on a group of brash young guns.
As an indication of the twain never meeting between East and West, Lei Yu is specially picked by a calm and wise veteran commander, Zhang Ting (The Battle At Lake Changjin’s Hu Jun), for the mission because, unlike Cruise's Maverick who’s all action, Lei is both a top pilot and a smart scientific nerd.
The kid keeps failing in physical tolerance tests, but he studiously ploughs through books to come up with a brainy solution to propel China’s fighter planes into a brave new rah-rah world. Hence, encapsulating the Eastern penchant for combining the loud meathead heavy with a quieter egghead study.
There’s a fleeting moment when this Chinese introspection almost brings this tale into an intriguing dramatic direction.
“To be a hero, it's such a burden,” Deng Fang, the rival, confesses as he reveals the threat to his inner peace.
Then those noisy, dominating planes of war take off screaming into the sky again. (3/5 stars)