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 knock-off 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 he 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.
Sky Hunter: Film Review The latest in a string of patriotic actioners from the PRC,