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A gifted but maverick (sorry) fighter pilot goes from rogue hotshot to true hero and gets the girl in director-star Li Chen’s Sky Hunter, a shameless Top Gun knockoff and a bit of nationalist entertainment from China’s recent wave of ultra-patriotic action adventures — and the first to feature actual Chinese military hardware. Released over the National Day weekend, Sky Hunter barely earned its budget back, and other markets it would, ahem, fly in are a mystery. Opening a full three weeks later in Hong Kong, the film’s brand of gung ho nationalism is likely to be a bitter pill there, what with the memory of a British human rights critic being denied entry into the territory so fresh in the public memory. It may score in other overseas markets as a curiosity — where the air force wants to strut, no doubt — but Sky Hunter’s blandness will likely cause it to crash and burn.
It’’s an understatement to say Sky Hunter‘s story is a familiar one. A hotshot air force pilot, Maverick … er, uh, Wu Di (Li, Aftershock) enters a top-secret, super-specialized covert missions squadron, the titular Sky Hunters, along with the woman of his dreams, helicopter rescue ace Yali (Fan Bingbing). The third leg of the trio of friends is Haochen (Li Jiahang), Wu Di’s aviation school wingman who opts out of an active military career for a teaching post “overseas,” in the nondescript west Asian republic of Mahbu. When some equally nondescript, Mad Max reject-looking terrorists called the Light Group or the Holy Light or some such, led by Colonel Rahman (Tomer Oz), attack the air base Haochen works at, it sets off a diplomatic incident that forces the Chinese government’s hand. You see, Haochen is among a couple of dozen Chinese nationals in Mahbu who are taken hostage. The Sky Hunter commander, Ling Weifeng (Wang Qianyuan, The Golden Era) and Wu Di attempt a rescue, but Ling winds up in the hospital after a self-sacrificing maneuver that saves Wu Di. Yes, Wu Di guides the bloodied and battered chief back to base. Can Yali and Wu Di control their roiling emotions during the eventual full-on assault and rescue, save their friend and find love? Of course they can.
To point the finger at Sky Hunter and accuse it of rah-rah nonsense and glorious military porn — and being nothing more than a recruitment ad — is unfair when the film it was modeled on did precisely the same thing. The American Navy threw its support behind Top Gun, and similarly the Chinese air force did so here, the significant difference being the air force had the courage of its convictions and actually produced it. Kudos for honesty, but the result is writer Zhang Li’s inability to create any sense of drama within the narrative, such as it is, assuming he could have. There is no conflict in China, and therefore no rivalries to deal with a la Maverick and Iceman — or Drama 101 for that matter. Zhang heaps on the cliche imagery — screaming from barren mountain tops (not sure why), the pained, wall-facing shower following a tragedy (except wholesomely clothed this time) — but seems unsure as to whether he should cheekily wallow in them or turn them on their heads. An introductory sequence where Wu Di and Haochen chase off a pair of hostile fighters with some upside-down flying and bird-flipping is lifted almost beat for beat from Tony Scott’s classic, and credit to Li and Zhang for a self-aware joke about Haochen thinking he’d seen that in a movie somewhere.
But unlike Top Gun or producer Lv Jianmin’s own ridiculously propagandistic Wolf Warrior films, Sky Hunter barely even cuts it as an action film. For all those other films’ faults, they were at least well produced and wholly respectable, if not excellent, on the action front. That lack of conflict or sense of stakes renders Sky Hunter totally devoid of tension. Zhang is clearly a soldier and not a writer.
A handful of Hollywood heavyweights on board don’t really add much either. The Howard Zimmer-produced score by Andrew Kawczynski is garden-variety bombast; effects crew Pixomondo (led by Nathan McGuinness of Westworld and Black Hawk Down) and Zhu Feng (Transformers, Valerian) put as much CGI into each frame as is humanly possible, but it’s neither of their best work. The dogfights are repetitive and what little aerial photography there is is underwhelming. Li never gets a solid handle on space or time, muddling the action to the point of confusion, not suspense. Adding insult to injury is an early mountainside escape via parachute that’s so sloppy it wouldn’t be out of place alongside Die Another Day‘s notorious tsunami surf. Unforgivable.
Production company: Spring Era Films, Air Force Political Department Television Arts Center
Cast: Li Chen, Fan Bingbing, Li Jianhang, Wang Qianyuan, Tomer Oz, Zhao Da, Li Chenhao, Guo Mingyu, Ye Liu, Wu Xiubo, Wang Xueqi
Director: Li Chen
Screenwriter: Zhang Li
Producer: Lv Jianmin, Guo Xuxin
Executive producer: Chen Peng
Director of photography: Chen Dan
Production designer: Xu Duo
Editor: Kuang Zhiliang
Music: Andrew Kawczynski
World sales: Spring Era Films
No rating, 115 minutes
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