Movie Review: The Chinese “Top Gun” comes to the West — “Born to Fly”

Hollywood’s idea of a “Top Gun” is a somewhat short action tyro who isn’t shy about hitting the gym, driving his motorcycle without a helmet or doing his own stunts.

Some of China’s top guns, cast in “Born to Fly,” are buff. But most would seem right at home in a boy band.

But they’re just as patriotic, just as jingoistic and just as spoiling for a dust-up with the unnamed “enemy” as the testosteroned team that attended the U.S. Navy’s “Top Gun” school, way back in the movie-mad ’80s.

“Born to Fly” is a straight-up “Top Gun” Chinese knock-off — the original, not “Maverick” — with hints of “The Right Stuff” and every other movie about test pilots testing themselves and each other as they take new airframes up into “the wild blue yonder” to see if they’re worthy.

It’s centered around Lei Yu, a frontline pilot summoned to test pilot school after getting handed his lunch in one of China’s many airspace/seaspace confrontations with “foreigners” over The People’s Republic’s expansionist ideas of just what constitutes “Chinese jurisdiction.”

This seems to fall somewhere between invading Tibet and Soviet and later Putin’s Russia’s idea of regions of “influence” on the international provocation scale, the thinking being “It’s called The China Sea, it’s ours, all the way around Taiwan and right up to the beaches of the Philippines.”

The U.S. Navy and its pilots, as this bellicose Chinese flag-waver implies, aren’t accepting that.

But Lei Yu will do his patriotic duty and hope to get a new fighter to take back to those “front lines” for his “revenge” on the foreigners.

As the film stars a big name in Chinese cinema, Wang Yibo, with other recognizable faces in the supporting cast, this was poised to be a blockbuster in the Motherland last year. But it was yanked from release. Speculation about why has ranged from the benign “star’s sponsors” stopped it to the quality of the effects (which are actually excellent) and performances (no issues there) to more geopolitical.

Did the government want it suppressed so as not to dial up tensions with “foreigners,” for peaceful reasons, or more sinister ones given China’s oft-expressed designs on Taiwan?

Beyond my paygrade to say. But I can say the movie’s definitely got A-picture qualities, even if those are saddled to a tepid, nationalistic agitprop screenplay.

Lei Yu, his comrades, his commanding officer and his “Golden Helmet Award” winning rivals are all trying to get China’s next-gen jet up to the quality of “the enemy’s” “fourth gen” stealth figher.

They will train, be tested on reflexes and nerve, “push the envelope” (in Chinese with English subtitles), “punch-out” every time when this new engine fails. The Master Designer (Tian Zhaungzhuang) and his crew hope that engine and this new jet will allow China to “catch up” just at the moments jet fighters seem obsolete.

See “Russia vs. Ukraine,” rounds one and two.

What interested me here was the contrasting cultural attitudes in military service as depicted in essentially two different versions of the same general narrative. The American one is egocentric, hot-dogging and nihilistic. And there are hints of that in the Chinese corps, too, but open willingness to sacrifice ego for the greater good is preached and acted-out by the characters.

Lei Yu “punches out” too quickly during a two-seater jet flame-out, and after being scolded for losing “data” even though every trained pilot’s life is “precious,” he is sentenced to the parachute hanger, learning the meticulous “one parachute, one life” work of the man who runs it, grasping the big picture, the stakes and even having a brain storm about jet design as he does.

There are scenes of Big Red Chinese flag pomp and ceremony — graduating into the class, visiting the memorial to fallen (Test?) pilots.

And there are a lot of seriously limp moments of confrontation, soul-searching and the “romantic relationship” (Zhou Dongyu plays a doctor testing the pilots) that is so chastely avoided.

I’ve seen just enough recent Chinese cinema to see “Born to Fly” as a bit cheesier than most exports, but only on the edges of the rank propaganda of some Chinese war films, which span most wars China has fought, from ancient times to Korea.

Technologically, the flight scenes — combining some real in-flight footage with pretty good CGI — is like years ahead of that cartoonish Chinese Bruce Willis WWII air combat picture “Air Strike” which I watched on TV just long enough to grimace.

The melodramatics are a bit on the thin side, which makes it a little worse than either of the “Top Guns” just in terms of story. And the real in-flight footage of those two Hollywood enterprises is on another level thanks to Cruise’s commitment to tactile reality in his performances.

But I don’t doubt “Born to Fly” would have sold plenty of tickets had it been released in the market it was made for. Geopolitically, the jury’s still out on whether or not that would have been a good thing.

In any event, it’s just as bad as “Top Gun,” for a lot of the same reasons, and earns exactly the rating I gave that “classic” film when I reviewed it on the cusp of the release of “Maverick.”

Rating: unrated, fisticuffs, blood

Cast: Wang Yibo, Hu Jun, Yosh Yu, Zhou Dongyu and Tian Zhuangzhuang

Credits: Scripted and directed by Liu Xiaoshi Liu. A Well Go USA release.

Running time: 2:03


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