Now THIS Is How You Copy ‘Top Gun’

South Korea’s ‘Return 2 Base’ is an air action film with heart, flying and crying

Now THIS Is How You Copy ‘Top Gun’ Now THIS Is How You Copy ‘Top Gun’

Uncategorized November 27, 2013 0

The ending should be totally unsurprising to no one. Except for the man crying. Return 2 Base Screen capture Now THIS Is How You... Now THIS Is How You Copy ‘Top Gun’
The ending should be totally unsurprising to no one. Except for the man crying. Return 2 Base Screen capture

Now THIS Is How You Copy ‘Top Gun’

South Korea’s ‘Return 2 Base’ is an air action film with heart, flying and crying 

There’s a whole genre of aviation films based on the 1986 American classic Top Gun. Last month, War is Boring profiled Sky Fighters, a 2011 film produced by China’s state propaganda machine about the world of Chinese air force fighter pilots. It’s awful.

Undeterred, we continue our round-the-world coverage of these films with a look at Return 2 Base, South Korea’s refreshingly good Top Gun clone. It ain’t exactly Citizen Kane, but Return 2 Base is exciting, sympathetic and a lot of fun.

And it’s got F-15s.

Coffee in the control tower. You know what comes next. Return 2 Base screen grab

‘Top Gun,’ yet again

Return 2 Base stars South Korean heart throb Rain as Capt. Jung Tae-yoon of the Republic of Korea Air Force. Kicked out of Korea’s Black Eagles aerobatics team for one unauthorized stunt too many, Jung is busted to the fictional 21st Fighter Wing, where he is assigned to fly F-15K fighter-bombers.

Like the Chinese Sky Fighters, Return 2 Base heavily mimics the American original. The main character is again a reckless, maverick jet jockey operating within a conservative, rules-bound military culture. Again he is saved by a superior who recognizes his flying talent. But along the way he runs into a hostile, by-the-book competitor—Iceman in Top Gun—who despises his freewheeling ways but ultimately befriends him.

There is, yet again, a “guy in a leather jacket and aviator shades on a motorcycle chases an airplane scene”—except this time the plane is a powered hang gilder. Roaring along on his motorcycle, Jung can’t catch up with the tiny glider. It’s kind of weird and emasculating, truthfully.

Jung even does a fly-by of the control tower that causes people to spill scalding hot coffee and, in a nod to healthier times, yogurt. In an homage or nod or something to Top Gun’s infamous beach volleyball scene, there is a homoerotic scene with shirtless, oiled-up men snarling at each other in a darkened locker room, dog tags flashing like disco balls, chests heaving.

Like Top Gun and Sky Fighters—and I think at this point revealing this isn’t spoiling anything—there is the triumphant ending, when everyone is standing around in flight suits cheering and celebrating the maverick pilot’s victory.

Except this is a Korean film, so there’s also a man sobbing.

Dogfight over the Han River. Return 2 Base screen grab

Real and fake planes

Top Gun is unique because it involves real airplanes flying real stunts. Sky Fighters has very little real aerial footage—and its computer-generated special effects are execrable.

Return 2 Base uses a mixture of both actual flying and CGI, and the results are not terrible because the Korean special effects industry is quite good. Often, thanks to quick camera cuts, you can’t tell if you’re looking at a real warplane or something computer-generated.

There is one constant byproduct of using CGI airplanes: bad aerodynamic modeling. At least once, airplanes drift like cars. Jung’s favorite trick, the “zero-knot” maneuver, has him flying a FA-50 jet vertically until his airspeed drops to zero, after which the engine flames out and his aircraft drops like a stone.

He points the nose down and reignites the engine when he reaches 300 knots. Just before he hits the ground he yanks the nose up. For a split second, the aircraft is hovering above the ground. How does that even happen?

But never mind. Jung’s jet exhaust blows a woman’s miniskirt up around her waist.

Whose idea was this? Return 2 Base screengrab

Speaking of women

Return 2 Base does differ from the American and Chinese films when it comes to women’s roles. In Top Gun, the only woman around is a civilian intelligence contractor. In Sky Fighters, the main character’s wife is a Chinese air force officer who does … basically nothing.

There are women in the Republic of Korea Air Force—and they have actual jobs. Return 2 Base has female aircrew and ground crew. One of the characters is a weapons systems officer in an F-15 and the other is a maintenance sergeant who is a real hardass. Nothing is made of them being female; they don’t have to explain their presence and they don’t crack under pressure.

Unlike the women of Sky Fighters, their commander does not helpfully bring them tampons.

North Korean MiG pilot using his eyebrows as weapons. Return 2 Base screengrab

Blood is thicker than alliance

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is its attitude towards North Korea. The North’s people and soldiers are not portrayed as merely bad guys. Really, only a few specific North Koreans are the movie’s anointed villains, and the film goes out of its way to show them as really, really evil—independently of their citizenship.

The film also depicts cooperation between South Korea and North Korea. Without giving away the plot, a crisis occurs on the Korean peninsula that is not directly the fault of either the North or South. The United States threatens to nuke Wonsan, but the two Koreas come to an agreement to jointly defuse the situation.

In the moment of crisis, there is very much a “we Koreans will settle this ourselves” attitude. This gets to something many outside Korea forget: North and South Korea are the same people, separated by two political systems. The U.S. may have 29,000 troops in South Korea and a military alliance with Seoul, but it and not the North is the outsider in Korea.

Return 2 Base, not straitjacketed by the the goal of being state propaganda or a Tony Scott film is entertaining and at times even funny. In tone it’s quite different from its American and Chinese cousins. The film deftly shifts between a playful lightheartedness and thriller in a way the sterile Sky Fighters and the cheesy Top Gun never do.

Anyone looking for a hard military thriller will be disappointed, but if what you want is a solid adventure film that isn’t a snoozer or cringe-inducingly cheesy, Return 2 Base isn’t a bad choice.

One more thing. They still have the draft in South Korea. So shortly after wrapping Return 2 Base, actor Rain joined the military to fulfill his service obligation.

That’s a lot more than Tom Cruise ever did.