Director – Liu Xiaoshi – 2023 – China – Cert. 12a – 128m
Genuinely thrilling action movie about Chinese test pilots owes much to US movies Top Gun and The Right Stuff, even as it attempts to justify current expansionist Chinese views – out in UK and Irish cinemas on Friday, May 5th
From above the clouds. Two stealth jets. Down towards the sea surface and an oil platform flying a Chinese flag. Coffee in a cup vibrating Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) style to indicate the imminent approach of the monster. Sonic boom. Aircraft fly past. Oil rig windows blow out. Faces are cut to ribbons. In one cockpit, the pilot radios his colleague and, presumably, anyone else listening (in US English): “we can come and go anywhere we want.”
Then, a Chinese plane after them. In their sights. But, before the American can shoot it down, the Chinese loops the loop, transforming from target to shooter. Vowing, like that villainous Hollywood icon The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984) to be back, the US pilots leave Chinese airspace.
The Chinese aircraft, meanwhile, clearly inferior to its US counterparts, suffers flameout requiring its ace pilot to make a forced landing during which its drogue parachute fails to open. Successfully landed through skill and ingenuity despite problems with his aircraft, pilot Lei Yu (Wang Yibo) is all too well aware that China needs fourth generation stealth jets to match those of the enemy. Higher ranking Zhang Tian (Hu Jun from The Battle At Lake Changjin, Chen Kaige, Dante Lam, Tsui Hark, 2021; Red Cliff, John Woo, 2008; Infernal Affairs II, Andrew Lau, Alan Mak, 2003) recruits him into the army’s test pilot unit with the promise that Lei will be able to test fly a fourth generation stealth jet.
Driving to the unit’s desert location, Lei sees a plane come in to land moments ahead of a sandstorm. “Zhang, who recruited you, flies in all kids of weathers,” Lei’s army driver explains. Which is pretty weird because, aside from this one scene, the weather during the rest of the narrative is dry and sunny.
As one of far more test pilot candidates than there are positions to be filled, Lei fares less well than star candidate Deng Fang (Yu Shi) on all initial tests bar one – in the air test, measuring how a pilot will perform on a reduced oxygen supply, Lei doesn’t pass out while Deng does. This is to prove crucial later on. On their first flight, he and Zhang are flying an inferior plane to Deng, but as Lei optimistically puts it, “who says a tractor can’t win against a Ferrari?”
His optimism is, however, short-lived when their plane gets into trouble, and he ejects, leaving Zhang to single-handedly pull out of a tailspin in the nick of time. On return, pretty, military nurse Shen (a barely used Zhou Dongyu from Better Days, Derek Tsang, 2019) takes a particular interest in his recovery while Zhang grounds him not for ejecting too soon, but for doing so without first collecting from the aircraft the flight data which is the sole reason for test flights.
Lei quits, but is given one final job before leaving: he must learn how to pack parachutes for aircraft, a painstakingly complex job with no room for error because a mistake could mean the chute wouldn’t deploy properly. He learns many specific details about parachutes from this, including that there are anti-spin chutes. In his spare time, he works speculatively on modifying aircraft designs on computer, coming to the conclusion that if an anti-spin chute been fitted to the plane he and Zhang were flying, that would have prevented the issue they experienced and made the plane far safer to fly.
A brief, unexplained shot of an aircraft flying down a zigzag canyon directly references Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski, 2022), this film’s most obvious template. Actually, the many differences between the two films are telling. The biggest one is that the Top Gun franchise has Tom Cruise, while Born To Fly has no remotely comparable star.
Call me a tool of the capitalist West, but I can think of no-one in China of Cruise’s calibre, apart from a few who came out of Hong Kong decades ago when it was a British Crown colony. Besides, if Cruise were Chinese, the State wouldn’t allow his character to be quite so professionally or personally reckless (qualities cherished in the US, at least in their movie stars). Wang Yibo’s Lei is much more conscientious – when he disobeys orders, it’s either a mistake or because he can see a better way to promote the greater good.
Unlike the sexual shenanigans in Top Gun: Maverick, Born To Fly’s romantic interest is chaste and orderly, with Zhou’s nurse turning up to heal, smile at or otherwise encourage the hero with the tacit implication that at some point she’ll make a good, devoted military wife for him just as Zhang’s briefly seen wife relates how she spent years traipsing around China by train to chastely visit her childhood sweetheart in his various military postings prior to marrying him.
China feels like a society where box-ticking of required social norms is an absolute must, no-one ever steps out of line (unless through weakness or a sense of social duty) and everyone is all the happier working for the good of all. You can imagine the State censors nodding approvingly, although the Chinese authorities delayed the release from October of last year to this May, so they clearly weren’t happy about something. The film doesn’t feel as if it has had anything cut or trimmed.
The other huge difference is born out by the remainder of the plot, which I won’t go into because of spoilers. The US values its man of action Tom Cruise, and is willing to put up with his sometimes being uncontrollable, whereas Wang’s Lei’s hero is the type who, off-duty, selflessly embraces aircraft design to advance national betterment. He’s not so much a lad out for thrills and fun as, at heart, a brilliant technician; China seems to want its citizens to be good all-rounders, for instance military pilots who not only fly brilliantly but are also gifted at improving aircraft design. It’s a completely different cultural view from the US, and I can’t imagine Tom Cruise playing a role exactly like this.
Much is made in passing of honouring the graves of test and other pilots who’ve died in the course of duty, and to its credit the film is unafraid to show test flights going catastrophically, sometimes fatally, wrong (perhaps this is why the authorities delayed the Chinese release). One pilot refuses to bale out of his plane as it loses altitude over a city until such time as he can crash-land in unoccupied desert, thus saving many innocent urban lives. Another, after baling out, fails to land properly and is dragged along the ground and his shoulder impaled by a sharp metal protrusion. This heroism recalls Top Gun less than The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, 1983), that other American movie about pilots, specifically test pilots, and astronauts pushing the boundaries.
Born To Fly at one point completely outdoes Top Gun: Maverick by throwing in a bird strike at the worst possible moment in a test flight, breaking the cockpit window and splattering blood everywhere.
Having carefully set up numerous scenarios in its first hour, the well-crafted screenplay neatly proceeds to pay them off one by one in the final reel. Some may find this corny or predictable: I personally found it made for extremely satisfying viewing.
That said, the opening dogfight in which a lone heroic Chinese plane sees off two US fighters with superior technology who deliberately enter Chinese airspace is echoed with a climactic dogfight in which the Chinese, having improved their technical capabilities of their aircraft to match if not outdo their US counterparts, soundly see them off to prove that China’s airspace is not open to be routinely entered by anyone else. It’s not a far stretch from such arguments to say that China should be allowed to take back Taiwan, a country it has long considered part of its territory, the film thereby packing a worrying expansionist philosophy into its entertainment.
Not that’s really any different from the message of the Top Gun films that the US is not to be messed with; both China and the US are huge superpowers throwing their military weight around on the international stage.
While you can’t help but feel Born To Fly would benefit hugely from a home-grown star with the charisma of Tom Cruise, the special effects are peerless and the aerial scenes of derring-do as breathtaking and exciting as anything in the Top Gun films, with the whole thing beautifully put together. The ideology may be dodgy, but that’s not why audiences flock to films like this – it’s because of the flying sequences, the aerial stunts and the spectacle. On all those levels, it succeeds in spades. See it on the biggest screen you possibly can.
Born To Fly is out in UK and Irish cinemas on Friday, May 5th.