Film Review: R2B: Return to Base

Korean air saga joins the terrifically entertaining tradition of classic flight films like <i>Wings, Hell&#8217;s Angels</i> and <i>Only Angels Have Wings.</i>
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In an odd coincidence, the Korean air saga R2B: Return to Base, doubtlessly inspired by Top Gun, is being released just a week after the apparent suicide of that film’s director, Tony Scott. Here we have Jung Tae-hun (Korean pop megastar Rain, aka Jung Ji-hoon), in the Tom Cruise reckless-hotshot role, an achingly young fighter pilot who is kicked off an elite show team for his daredevil antics and demoted to a fighter wing. His brash ways raise the hackles of his fellow pilots, who include the far more straitlaced squad leaders Cheol-hui (Yu Jun-sang) and Park Dae-seo (Kim Sung-soo), a widowed single father. Also in their midst are two women, Yu-jin (Lee Ha-na), who harbors a secret crush on Dae-seo, and Se-yeong (Shin Se-kyung), the wing’s talented top maintenance technician, whose faulty hearing is the only thing which keeps her out of the air.

Ever in the doghouse, impulsive Tae-hun has a full plate, as he must win the annual Air Force flying competition (to rejoin the show team) as well as the heart of Se-yeong, who has a true love-hate relationship with this upstart. Additionally, those villainous North Koreans are ever afoot, staging a bloody coup which threatens their neighbors in the south, providing one more do-or-die mission for our young hero.

Under Kim Dong-won’s ebullient direction, Return to Base, for all its genre derivativeness and predictability, is pretty swell entertainment. Kim’s canny delineation of character and alertness to the comradely humor of so many of his situations make this a far more convincing (and far less camp) flight movie than Top Gun. The gruff macho and bluster inherent in Korean men, illustrated by these actors, seems far more organic here than the cock-o’-the-walk strutting of those male ingénues in the Scott film. And there’s none of the weirdly unsettling homoeroticism of glistening, muscled bodies posing in the locker room in barely-there towels, which made Top Gun often so risible. The embattled characters here are not cartoons and you come to genuinely care about them, which gives appreciable depth to all the action pyrotechnics, which are quite spectacular in their myriad, breathlessly shot and edited live action and CGI.

Rain is a deeply ingratiating presence, unafraid to play the fool, with an amusing panoply of funny faces and goofball shtick. Shin is fetchingly feisty and shares a juicy, combative chemistry with him. The other actors fill out their roles nicely, all of them possessing that inordinate handsomeness which has been such an asset and source of appeal of the Korean soap operas which have quite swept the world with their popularity.