China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 115 mins.
Director: Li Chen 李晨.
Slick, well-tooled slice of gung-ho action is enjoyable but lacks the pulpy appeal of Wolf Warrior II.
China, the present day. Three months earlier, PLA Air Force pilot Wu Di (Li Chen) and his wingman Liu Haochen (Li Jiahang) successfully saw off two attempts by US planes to enter China’s airspace. At the same time, in a snowy plateau in western China, PLA soldier Batu (Guo Mingyu) was involved in a secret guerrilla operation and, in the mountains of southern China, helicopter pilot Zhao Yali (Fan Bingbing) rescued a mother and her child seconds before a landslide denolished their village. Now, all of them are at the retirement ceremony of their teacher Lu Guoqiang (Wu Xiubo). At the party afterwards Wu Di, goaded on by Liu Haochen, makes a play for Zhao Yali, with whom he was once a fellow-student and for whom he always had an undeclared liking. She plays along, without committing herself. Liu Haochen then surprises his friend by telling him he’s taking an overseas posting that’s better paid than his present job. Wu Di, Zhao Yali, Batu and Gao Yuan are among those handpicked to try out for the elite Sky Hunter Special Brigade, commanded by Ling Weifeng (Wang Qianyuan). At its remote, secret location they undergo survival and other training and are finally rubber-stamped by Ling Weifeng. Meanwhile, Liu Haochen has been helping to train local pilots at Dahara airbase, in Mahbu, a Central Asian republic bordering western China. When the base is suddenly attacked by some Light Group terrorists, it turns out that the airport’s commander, the much-decorated Gerula Rahman (Tomer Oz), is secretly working for them. The terrorists give the Mahbu authorities 36 hours to release Light Group’s leader, who is being held in detention, or they will execute their airport hostages, who include nine Chinese citizens. The terrorists also control a silo that contains an ICBM. Mahbu requests the help of China’s government, which sends two fighters to assist in a joint anti-terrorist operation; the main pilot is Ling Weifeng, and his wingman Wu Di. Both manage to avoid SAM missiles launched by the terrorists, but Ling Weifeng is badly wounded and only just makes it back alive thanks to Wu Di’s help. Under pressure, the Mahbu authorities agree to release Light Group’s leader but the latter is shot dead by a vengeful soldier during the handover. As the situation escalates, China’s government greenlights an immediate but high-risk rescue mission for the Chinese hostages, commanded by Chen Anhe (Wang Xueqi). Wu Di is the lead fighter pilot, Zhao Yali the lead helicopter pilot, and Batu and Gao Yuan head the ground team.
An elite section of China’s airforce goes into action to rescue hostages somewhere in Central Asia in Sky Hunter 空天猎, a slickly-tooled slice of gung-ho action that has the same messages, but not the same pulpy appeal, as recent mega-hit Wolf Warrior II 战狼II (2017). Instead of Wu Jing 吴京, martial arts and lots of explosions, Sky Hunter sports videogame-like flying sequences, plenty of sleek hardware and Mainland diva Fan Bingbing 范冰冰 looking super-cool in mirror shades. Starring and directed by Fan’s real-life fiance, TV/film actor Li Chen 李晨 (the childhood best friend in MBA Partners 梦想合伙人, 2016), the mixture has proved surprisingly successful, taking a very respectable RMB318 million for a reported budget of RMB200 million.
The messages behind the movie are a combination of those behind WWII and an earlier PLA production, Sky Fighters 歼十出击 (2011, aka Lock Destination): that China will always protect its citizens wherever they may be and that its skies broach no intrusions. In addition, there’s also a very clear message that, even when fighting terrorism beyond its borders, China will always be an invited guest working under strict guidelines rather than a maverick power (no names mentioned) that sees itself as answerable to nobody. Sky Hunter doesn’t have the alpha-male rivalry that drove Sky Fighters, but its flying sequences are just as good if not better. More importantly, unlike Sky Fighters, it doesn’t dramatically stall when it’s on the ground.
That’s largely down to the quality of the casting, as the five-man screenplay – despite including Liu Yi 刘毅 and online military writer Gao Yan 高岩, both of whom worked on Wolf Warrior 战狼 (2015) – is a strictly utilitarian affair that, via some getting-to-know-you and training scenes, simply shuffles the characters into their correct positions for the finale. Drawing on his comedic image from TV, top-billed Li brings a light flavour to the gung-ho hero in the training scenes and some irony to his kind-of-romantic scenes with Fan, in which both characters hide their mutual attraction. Fan, who reportedly took no fee for her role, occasionally steps outside her diva image for some more sprightly stuff – notably at a party, where she sings, and in some training scenes – and always looks fabulous behind the stick of a helicopter.
As the hero’s wisecracking wingman-turned-terrorist hostage, TV’s Li Jiahang 李佳航 cuts a likeable figure, while hatchet-faced Wang Qianyuan 王千源 (Lost in the Moonlight 夜色撩人, 2017; Peace Breaker 破•局, 2017) is nicely cast as the elite unit’s hard-arsed head. Wang’s character, as well as others by actors Li Chenhao 李晨浩 and Guo Mingyu 郭洺宇, could have done with more scenes and his absence later on is particularly regrettable. A cameo by seasoned veteran Wang Xueqi 王学圻 as the operation’s commander partly fills the space. As an airforce veteran, Wu Xiubo 吴秀波 (Finding Mr. Right 北京遇上西雅图, 2013; Book of Love 北京遇上西雅图之不二情书, 2016) pops up with greyed hair and an ironic smile.
All of these performances help to animate the by-the-numbers screenplay but Sky Hunter still lacks the down-and-dirty, pulpy touch that made WWII so engaging. Partly because of the film’s (necessary) focus on flying scenes, and partly because of its well-drilled look, the finale lacks the emotional clout it should have, even on a flag-waving level.
Though the on-the-ground action sequences are only standard compared with WWII‘s, on an overall technical level the film is top class, like all PLA productions, with spacious mounting and quality production values. Widescreen photography by d.p. Chen Dan 陈丹 (Jianbing Man 煎饼侠, 2015) has a pristine majesty in exteriors and plenty of texture in interiors, and is always rigorously composed, while the editing, supervised by Hong Kong’s Kuang Zhiliang 邝志良, is tight and clean. Both are immeasurably superior to the music score, written by the US’ Andrew Kawczynski and “executive produced” by Hans Zimmer, that’s just action wallpaper. As well as around Beijing, the film – which bills itself as “China’s first modern-day aerial-combat blockbuster” – was shot in Zhuhai, Changchun and Kazakhstan.
Presented by PLA Air Force Political Work Department TV Arts Centre (CN), Spring Era Films (Khorgos) (CN). Produced by PLA Air Force Political Work Department TV Arts Centre (CN), Spring Era Films (Khorgos) (CN).
Script: Li Chen, Zhang Li, Liu Yi, The Last Guardian [Gao Yan], Chu Xiangyu. Unit scriptwriting: Chen Xiangyu, Qiao Yuanyuan. Original story: Zhang Li, Zhang Weizhong, Zhang Zihan. Photography: Chen Dan. Editing: Kuang Zhiliang, Huang Qiongyi. Music: Andrew Kawczynski. Executive music production: Hans Zimmer. Music supervision: Yu Fei. End-title song: Su Duo. End-title vocal: Lu Han. Production design: Xu Duo. Art direction: Guo Mengxiao. Styling: You Ying. Sound: Liu Tao. Visual design: Zhu Feng. Visual effects: Nathan McGuinness, Cai Kuiguang (Pixomondo). Executive direction: Li Shuang, Chu Xiangyu, Jiang Yu.
Cast: Li Chen (Wu Di), Fan Bingbing (Zhao Yali), Wang Qianyuan (Ling Weifeng), Li Jiahang (Liu Haochen), Zhao Da (Qiao), Li Chenhao (Gao Yuan), Guo Mingyu (Batu), Ye Liu (Zhang Li), Lu Siyu (Liu Yu), Tomer Oz (Gerula Rahman), Wang Xueqi (Chen Anhe, operation commander), Wu Xiubo (Lu Guoqiang), Deng Chao (base-guard soldier), Hao Xuankai (soldier in red), Zhou Shuai (helicopter co-pilot), Haxiqimike (female teacher hostage), Chen Siyan (student hostage), Wang Zhiyuan (Lu Guoqiang’s wife), Wang Zhenke (checkpoint officer), Zhang Zhiwenhan (Duoduo/Flowers, Wang Yi’s young daughter), Li Qingyu (Xiaoqing), Zhao Hongyi (Wang Yi, engineer), Zhou Daqing (Wang, political commissar).
Release: China, 29 Sep 2017.