Born to Fly

Born to Fly is clearly intended to be China’s answer to Top Gun and Top Gun: Maverick. There are even specific shots cribbed from those movies, from pilots receiving classroom instruction inside a hangar to technicians working on jet planes with a golden sunrise backlighting them. Aerial sequences more obviously rely on CGI, as director Liu Xiaoshi likes to design wild, crazy shots that would never be possible for real. Despite a lack of originality, if you like Tony Scott’s 1986 blockbuster and Joseph Kosinski’s 2022 sequel and want to see something similar, this movie is pretty darned fun.

The requisite hotshot hero is Lei Yu (Wang Yibo). Because of his skill, he’s invited to participate in the Chinese air force’s test pilot program. They’re attempting to get stealth fighters ready for use and need the best of the best to push their planes to the limit. You know the drill. Lei Yu is talented, yet undisciplined. He also has something to prove, just like a certain Pete Mitchell. Additionally there’s an Iceman-like rival (Yu Shi), a no-nonsense commander (Hu Jun), and a requisite love interest, in this case a doctor (Dongyu Zhou) who keeps tabs on the pilots.

Familiar as those elements may be, Born to Fly differentiates itself with the test pilot angle. Lei Yu has to do things like put his plane into an intentional spinning free-fall to see how – and if - it can be re-stabilized. Missions of that sort put the pilots’ lives in danger on a regular basis. The ejection button becomes their best friend. Watching the men commit crazy airborne acts, then try to undo them without dying, offers plenty of excitement. Those flights are staged with energy and style.

Scenes on the ground provide the story with a human element. The movie deals with issues like how everyone is impacted when a pilot fatally crashes. Safety measures in the air force are delved into slightly, as well. After a stint folding parachutes, Lei Yu figures out a way to potentially help prevent mid-air calamities. Born to Fly has high-octane action, yet takes time to give a sense of the hazards test pilots have to contend with. They’re guinea pigs, putting their safety on the line so that pilots in combat will more easily survive. To call their job sacrificial would be an understatement. The film points that out in a compelling manner.

The romance is as underdeveloped as it is forced in, and the adherence to the Top Gun template is impossible to ignore. Born to Fly works anyway. It has an appealing lead performance from Wang Yibo and enough high-flying action to deliver a good time, especially in the dogfights that open and close the story. Watching jet planes zipping around is entertaining because most of us can only imagine what that feels like. Here, we get a satisfying sense of what drives those who understand the need for speed intimately.

out of four

Born to Fly is unrated, but contains adult language and bloody injuries. The running time is 2 hours and 7 minutes.