A group of elite pilots in the Chinese Air Force is brought together with a special mission: the testing of a fighter that uses a revolutionary engine system. Among their number is talented, but surly young pilot Yu Lei – who is desperate to make his parents proud of his decision to join the Air Force – and wizened veteran Zhang Ting who is overseeing one last mission before retiring. Along the way, the recruits are put through a rigorous training regime to prepare them for the new technology, but vying for top spot among the pilots comes at a cost.
‘Born to Fly’ was initially made in 2022 but released a whole year later, somewhat similar to a certain Tom Cruise film that was a surprise hit in 2022. And this probably makes sense for ‘Born to Fly’ as suggestions that this is just a ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ cash-in is somewhat wide of the mark. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to say that it is a Chinese remake of the original ‘Top Gun’; it’s full of that braggadocio and bluster that the 1986 film had that the (much improved) sequel lacked. The result is a good big-budget action film though enjoyment will rest on how much Chinese flag-waving you can sit through.
The thing with that last statement is that, of course, ‘Top Gun’ wasn’t exactly a subtle piece of American cinema and wore the Stars & Stripes like a second skin. This was probably why I much preferred ‘Top Gun: Maverick’; I’m certainly not averse to a simple bit of testosterone-fuelled action, but 2022’s follow-up had a much richer range of characters and storylines to explore. This is where ‘Born to Fly’ is found especially wanting; the players are very blandly written, making even the original ‘Top Gun’ look like ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’. Hu Jun is easily the most compelling performer in the film though he gradually slips into the background as the story continues.
My other problem with ‘Born to Fly’ reminded me of my thoughts after a recent re-viewing of ‘Top Gun’ in anticipation of the sequel. Quite simply, there isn’t much of an antagonist to see defeated; it’s all about the usual technological challenges and predictable sub-plots that are part of the genre rulebook. Seeing the protagonists face off against a real threat is always going to be more involving than panicked conversations about engines failing and G-Force. The process of building something against the odds can be thrilling when executed like ‘The Right Stuff’ or ‘Ford vs. Ferrari’, but in a straight action film, there has to be a different plan to excite the viewer.
‘Born to Fly’ is, apart from a ropey opening that uses obvious models, slick and polished in the way that Chinese blockbusters increasingly are. Yet the makers have forgotten that the jingoism of films like ‘Top Gun’ was only forgiven because, wherever you are in the world, the characters and their interactions were slightly engaging. People like Maverick, Goose, and Iceman were not especially likable at the beginning of the 1986 film, but you were invested in the journey they took and the changes they made. ‘Born to Fly’ struggles with that very core foundation on which the rest of the film should be built on.