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 are willowy enough to 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 moment 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.

Other than that, “Born to Fly” looks and sounds like a Hollywood knockoff, from its action sequences to the Western rock guitar flavor to the music in some scenes, and a majestic score that quotes or plagiarizes Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

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 light 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


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. Gunja Nandi says:

    I would advise the reviewer to provide a less prejudiced and condescending review of a non-Hollywood film next time. There is a certain hypocrisy in praising Top Gun Maverick to the moons while calling another country’s openly nationalistic film “jingoistic”. It is plain Sinophobia. I also don’t think there was a need to display the Tom Cruise fan behaviour by praising on an unrelated note, his tactility with the equipment without doing your basic research on how these actors performed with real equipments, with hard training, and under the guidance of a director who is an aviation equipment expert. It was also interesting how much space the reviewer wasted by simply speculating on why the film release might have been slightly delayed. The conspiracy theories were positively laughable and highly entertaining, while being as just unprofessional as the rest of the review. Last but not the least, beginning a review by taking a dig at Asian masculinity in the year of 2023 is not a good look. Racist much? Please do Google toxic masculinity sometime.

    • Roger Moore says:

      Yo, Gunja. There is a LINK to my review of “Top Gun” in this review. I also gave that “jingoistic” junk a BAD review. There is no “praising ‘Top Gun’ ‘to the moons.'”
      Sorry to be “condescending,” but that renders your whole line of attack nonsense.
      This is plainly a Chinese knock-off of a Hollywood formula picture, a Hollywood movie I criticized for almost precisely the same flaws.
      Almost everything about “Born to Fly” is WESTERN. The rock guitars in the score, the story arc, the classical music part of the score rips off “Fanfare for the Common Man” by Aaron Copland.
      If you can’t be bothered to read the review before trotting the “racist” card, maybe you should a look in the mirror, and maybe put down Mao’s Little Red Book.
      By the way, why did China decline to release “Born to Fly?” I speculated on several possible reasons, and this review provides another. It’s not very good.

  2. Catherine Keelan says:

    Dear Roger, I am delighted that you found the special effects of Born to Fly to be excellent. I have seen a couple of other reviews of the movie which highlighted some aspects that potential cinemagoers might like to know. One is that the first five minutes of the film are very exciting, an aerial dogfight that leads into the rest of the story so that people can be aware they need to be on time for the showing. Another is that the film is innately honest about the Chinese effort to catch up on Western advantage in terms of jet design, as you touch on. Some mention the difficult learning process Lei Yu goes through, from tough physical training to overcoming psychological drawbacks to becoming part of a good working team – this is the human side which everyone can understand and enjoy seeing on the screen. The other aspect of course is that Wang Yibo has ENORMOUS sex appeal, he is very handsome, very charming. I would hardly expect you as a male reviewer to notice this but the girls certainly will! (Although you did a brief comment on his attractiveness in Hidden Blade)

  3. Eve Ra says:

    I am surprised such a hateful and sinophobic review was even published. Not only you did not review Born to Fly as a stan alone movie, you compare it incessantly, against another movie, from another culture.
    You were not watching Born to fly, you were “seen it” side by side to Top Gun. Non a professional take, or respectful way of reviewing any movie.

    • Roger Moore says:

      No, “compare and contrast with a film’s antecedents” is part of the reviewing process. It’s a shorthand way of connecting readers familiar with something they’ve seen to give them an idea if this new film is something they might want to see.
      Shocked at the idiotic replies from people who A) don’t appear to have seen the movie and B) can’t get their minds around anyone criticizing a crappy photocopy movie that was pulled from release in China because of either its script quality or its laughably obvious and bellicose politics.
      Perhaps Eve Ra thinks a bad Chinese film should be fluffed, just because it’s…
      The film has been nicknamed “The Chinese ‘Top Gun'” for a year or more. Google search it.
      And there is a search box on the right side of this review page allowing one to find any of the scores of GOOD Chinese films I review in a given year. Donnie Yen’s latest comes to mind.
      You don’t appear to have seen the movie, or actually read the review, which is quite measured and specific about what fails about the movie.
      Instead, you just “saw red” at the film’s “rating” and lashed out.
      For future reference, critics refer to people with passionate, triggered opinions on something thet haven’t bothered to see by a lot of names. Which I’m remembering with a smile every time I think of the name “Eve Ra,” or seeing as how you live in Doral/Miami, “Eva Ramos, Rayos or Ramirez” or whoever you are.

    • Aha says:

      Mao tse dung army here bashing the reviewers so he didn’t like the movie get over it. It’s a propaganda film regardless maybe you should be more worried on China’s human rights violations than their nice image they try to portray to the rest of the world.

      • Roger Moore says:

        This is a measured review, acknowledging the propoganda elements and the film-as-film’s shortcomings. I did the same thing for “Top Gun,” so I am mystified at pushback. But it is what it is.

  4. Dom says:

    Thanks for being brave enough in this triggered/indoctrinated society to leave an honest review. I’m sure these idiots leaving offended responses below didn’t check out your top gun review and call you unpatriotic. Great review and thanks for bringing this movie to my knowledge. P..S. “Put down Mao’s little red book” was hilarious.

  5. Catherine Keelan says:

    Dear Roger, I saw Born to Fly last night in Dublin – I was the only westerner there as everyone else was Chinese. I appreciate that your review was honest but I would disagree with your rating. One sentence stood out for me, spoken by Hu Jun as commander – “while the West was building atomic bombs, we were trying to feed ourselves”. That tells potently of the struggle to bring China and its 1.4 billion people up to modern standards and facing western blockades of material, to build their own J20 stealth fighter jet. What fascinated me last night was the story that developed about the human elements of a test pilot’s life. It was brought to life vividly and emotionally. That makes a film worthwhile, in my view. You wrote very well about human emotion in Manchester by the Sea (one of my favourite movies) and while the impact here is not as startling, it is still there, along with Lei Yu’s learning curve. So there is great honesty in this film, about the Chinese effort to catch up with the west and also about Lei Yu’s loss of face in front of his peers ( a far more serious issue in China than elsewhere, I think). Lei Yu slowly rebuilds his reputation and that is delicately done along with the growing teamwork with fellow test pilots. There is genuine sorrow in the film towards fallen heroes. The same has been done in US films when an old soldier visits the Normandy graves for instances, as at the end of Private Ryan. It is a universal emotion. Chinese dramas are slower than western ones but Born to Fly kept me interested throughout, there were some chuckles and a few tears so I would give Born to Fly 3.5 out of 5. I will definitely see it again.

    • Roger Moore says:

      I also made note of that lone line of Chinese history that you apparently feel made the film for you. I was more interested in most of what surrounded that sole admission that maybe the Tibet occupiers and Taiwan covetors could have been spending their cash and energy in more useful ways. The film’s final image is a bellicose recruiting poster, but perhaps you passed over that. And as I linked to my very similar review of the obvious template for “Born to Fly, Aiming to Intimidate,” the “rating” I passed on to this agitprop is apt. The one encouraging thing about is the hope that the Chinese government saw stopping its domestic release im China as the temperate move to make.

Comments are closed.