In October 2017 the People’s Republic of China held its 19th National Congress of the Communist Party. 2,300 party representatives assembled in Beijing to elect a new Central Committee, Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Politburo and Central Military Commission. The National Congress is an event with enormous import for China, since the make-up of its political offices largely determines in which direction national policy will be taken for the next five years. It is a politically sensitive time for Chinese society, and the government takes no chances with the public sentiment during such an occasion.
I explain all of this because it also explains Sky Hunter, an action film released a week before the 2017 Congress in China and select overseas markets – including Australia. To call the film patriotic would be an understatement. Sky Hunter is a direct and overt work of military propaganda, one literally co-produced by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s own political department. It is not simply designed to entertain, but rather to reinforce communist ideals, promote a strong sense of national pride, and potentially even recruit impressionable Chinese youth into joining the air force.
The film follows air force pilots Wu Di (Li Chen), Zhao Yali (Fan Bingbing) and Gao Yuan (Leon Lee). After completing a rigorous testing process, Wu and Zhao are assigned to the prestigious and top secret “Sky Hunter” air force program, while Gao moves to the fictional Central Asian state of Mahbu to train that country’s military pilots. When terrorists take over the airport where Gao is stationed and take a group of Chinese personnel hostage, it falls to Wu, Zhao and the Sky Hunter strike team to hit back and mount a rescue.
The film marks the directorial debut of Li Chen, and he has created a film that wants nothing else but to be a mid-1990s Jerry Bruckheimer action film. The picture is overflowing with military hardware, thanks to the participation of the real-life Chinese Air Force. Everything is shot with slow motion hero shots and wide-angle lenses. It even sounds like a Bruckheimer production, thanks to a Hans Zimmer-produced orchestral score. It’s also utterly terrible.
There are no characters in Sky Hunter, only ciphers. Fan Bingbing in particular seems wasted in a role that requires her character – a highly successful helicopter pilot – to spend much of the time looking pensively into the middle distance while pining for Wu Di. Leon Lee does his best with Gao Yuan, and manages to inject a little humour, but as he spends much of the film locked up by Central Asian terrorists there is not much for him to do. As protagonist Wu Di, Li Chen manages to be upstanding, noble and impressively heroic, but he does not actually have a defined personality on screen.
A rather over-the-top climax aside, the action is perfunctory and relatively dull. The stitches are visible across the whole film: a bit of Top Gun here, a few scenes from Black Hawk Down there, and odd smatterings of The Rock thrown in for good measure. Weirdest of all are the terrorists, led by the villainous Rahman (Tomer Oz). They all speak in English with a variety of accents, despite all purportedly coming from the one fictional country. Oz plays with his own Israeli accent. His right-hand man sounds Australian. A few of the henchmen are Cockney. It’s unintentionally hilarious.
Sky Hunter is derivative, unimaginative and so utterly ordinary that it is effectively impossible to recommend. Most viewers attracted to seeing it will be better entertained by rewatching the films it copies instead. Then again, this is not a film aimed at Australian fans of Asian cinema. This is propaganda, pure and simple, aimed directly at the Chinese people in support of their government while it goes through the business of re-arranging the furniture. That it is awful is almost irrelevant. This simply isn’t a film for us.