Sunday, April 7, 2024

First Battle Is Last Battle: Born to Fly (2023) Review

Director: Liu Xiaoshi

Notable Cast: Wang Yibo, Hu Jun, Zhou Dongyu, Xu Kaicheng, Bu Yu, Yosh Yu, ZHai Yujia, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Pan Binlong


In the wake of the subsequent hole left by China “banning” the release of Top Gun: Maverick, it’s no real shock that they would race to release their version of the jingoistic military meets school film that Tom Cruise’s jet-soaring sequel provided the world. While these kinds of propaganda-laden films are already a stock commodity for the Chinese market, I’d be lying that Born to Fly didn't perk up my interest. 


However, a limited theatrical release in the US and a Blu-ray release from our friends at Well Go USA definitely made me curious. While the film does have some merits in its dramatic choices and features an intriguing angle regarding the school and its test pilots, it always stays on the ground, burdened by hollow emotional stakes and a by-the-numbers narrative.


Born to Fly isn’t completely copying off the other students’ homework word for word; it is using it as a full-on template and guide to get where it wants to go. Powered by its pure-of-heart messaging about giving everything one has to offer for the greater good, enough so that the film maintains a shine of glorious regality bright enough to blind most viewers, this Top Gun-inspired flick has no qualms in erasing the gray areas of human emotion. No time for realism with its heightened heroics. 


It’s almost egregious in its blatant heroism and character arcs for its young pilot characters. The bad guys are bad—as noted by the black-helmeted villain pilots in a tacked-on final ten minutes of dog fighting—and the good guys are saintly good. There's no room for any real gray area for these characters. There’s too much pride to inject into its viewers of how heroes act for the film actually to navigate the complexities of its narrative and themes. 


It’s a relative shame, considering the stacked cast. Wang Yibo, who gave a stunningly nuanced performance in Hidden Blade last year, stars as the hot-headed young pilot Lei Yu. Lei is gunning to be the best pilot in this ‘test pilot school’ where pilots test out new technology in planes meant to make jets safer for the pilots going on missions. While the man can charm his way through most of the film, the script rarely favors him by allowing him to take control of the cockpit. The same goes for his teacher, Zhang Ting, played by the reliable Hu Jun. Everyone gets hammy backstories and the emotional missiles that the narrative fires at the audience never quite hit the mark. 


Born to Fly goes through the motions with its characters, introducing this pilot school, going through the various “tests” that each pilot must complete, and we follow a variety of side characters that Lei must interact with as he learns to be the best at, well, putting his life on the line in a safe way. Similar to Top Gun, this film is all about the competition - albeit friendly with its thematic goal of making planes safer without collaborating with other countries. Most of the action, sans the final 10 minutes of random dogfighting that feels utterly tacked onto the film to have a bigger finale to end on, are planes almost wrecking in the air as they test out new tactics and technology. The thrills are there, but it’s hardly as thrilling as it could have been due to some patchy CGI and blueprint builds in the action sequences. Even the action feels more mundane than expected for a film that should be flying at full speed.

Born to Fly should have taken note of its messaging for its pilots, let go of trying so hard to be a hero blockbuster, and just learned to be more creative outside the box to reach its goals. Director Liu Xiaoshi more than likely received the job for his work delivering promotional material before this film, and it shows. The thin narrative and broadly painted characters feel like they exist in a promotional video for flight school rather than existing to tell a defined story. 


Even for fans of plane movies, it’s hard to give a light recommendation with Born to Fly. It’s not a film that’s always missing the mark, thanks to a cast that is desperately trying to give weight to its single-stitched script, but it’s a film that never gets its wheels off the ground either. If anything, it might just end up being forgettable. 


Written By Matt Malpica Reifschneider

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