Let's get a bias out of the way. I'm a fan of fighter planes worldwide, so if I was not wearing glasses, I would've tried serving National Service under the air force, where at that point in time, the RSAF only flew A4-Skyhwaks, F-5 Tigers, then later on added the F-16 Falcons and the F-15 Eagles more recently. There have been Hollywood films centered around a particular plane or model, such as the Falcons being the focus in the Iron Eagle series, B-17s in Memphis Belle, A-6 Intruder in Flight of the Intruder, and of course, the F-14 Tomcats being the highlight of probably the most recognized fighter plane movie (and ironically, a Navy's Air Force), Top Gun, propelling Tom Cruise to instant stardom.
In Soar into the Sun, the F-15s, one of the workhorses in modern day air forces, finally get their recognition, although the irony here is that this film is not made by Hollywood, but by a key US ally in South Korea, in what would be a film to flex its military and air force muscles, showcasing what they have in their armament, as well as the skills depth of their visual effects department in creating a film that utilizes much of the Top Gun formula. After all, it's probably what is being used as a benchmark since it's so widely recognizable, so one wouldn't stray too far from the mark paying homage both stylistically and narratively as well.
And what of the Top Gun homage? Plenty of silhouettes with characters posing against sunsets or sunrises, the unmistakable Ray Bans, the cocky swagger of pilots and their rivalries, personal tragedies, romance and well, dogfights with communist enemies all rolled into one. There are enough music video moments, and even some political tension thrown in for good measure, which was a definite fanning of national fervour as it sticks the middle finger out at the USofA, as if to scream that enough is enough of US-centric policies and self-interests. And what more to drive that final nail in the coffin, even the North Koreans get in on the act, as the enemies unite to get rid of rogue elements who threaten stability in the peninsular.
While Top Gun 2 never made it off the ground, given the passing of Tony Scott, and more importantly, the lack of a credible rogue nation/enemy (even Top Gun had the pilots battle unidentified enemy bogeys that had generic communist markings on the MiGs), the clear and present danger that South Korea faces in the threats from the North, gives it the bandwidth to craft a scenario that's fully plausible, with the film industry taking certain liberties with the maneuverability of the planes they feature, but hey, it's movie making, so a little fantasy to spice up some aerial dogfights is more than expected for entertainment's sake.
For fans hungry for air combat scenes, this film featured plenty of stunts, effects, and battles that really made Top Gun look very dated, especially in its adoption of more fanciful camera work that seemed to fluidly move around the aircraft when it's in rapid motion in the air. Views are offered in and around the cockpit bubble, sometimes slowed down for somewhat comical staring of daggers between opponents. There's the usual dogfights between planes - having the F-15 do battle against its arch-rival the MiG-29 - is pure delight for any combat aviation fan, and if my eyes didn't play tricks on me, look out for the MiG's fabled cobra maneuver - I'd almost jump out of my seat with disbelief and glee when that happened.
Soar into the Sun has a whole host of arsenal deployed and missions to fulfill, such as air-to-air, surface-to-air, air-to-surface missiles, anti-aircraft guns, and missions from routine patrols, infiltration, and search and rescue all making it one holistic look at the workings of an air force. And what's more, not only do fighter pilots get in on the action, but attention being paid to the ground technical crew who keep the planes in tip top condition in between sorties, as well as ground commandos in extraction missions using their fixed wing aircraft, trained to rescue pilots who are downed behind enemy lines - and yes, this is yet another subplot that managed to find its way into the narrative, based on the John Moore film in 2001 starring Gene Hackman and Owen Wilson in his rare outing as an action hero.
Rain completed this film before heading toward his obligatory national service, and here he plays hotshot (what else?) pilot Jung Tae-Hoon, who's the youngest in the acrobatic Black Eagles team, flying the FA-50/T50 Golden Eagle (flown by Indonesia and South Korea's air force only), which is a trainer and multi-role fighter. But his decision to spice up a routine air show wasn't appreciated, and he also becomes the fastest to get sacked from the acrobatic team, being redeployed to an operationally ready squadron because its commanding officer believes that his talent with an aircraft shouldn't be gone to waste.
What is probably unheard of if this is done by Hollywood, is to admit that the main protagonist isn't the perfect all rounder he is. It's established early on that Tae-Hoon is the specialist in low flying, so he isn't quite cut out, as scenes would prove, that he's dogfight material. so this means Rain having to step aside and share the limelight with Yu Jun-Sang as Major Lee, who is their squadron's ace. And although the F-15K variant here is obviously the aircraft of choice and the superior fighter in the film, it's a nod toward Korean pride to have its lead fly the FA-50/T-50 Golden Eagle for his final, all important mission that delivered the payload.
The money shot is of course what you've caught a glimpse of in the trailer, where two F-15s are hot on the heels of a MiG-29, or at times, vice versa, as they storm through the skyscape of Seoul. The stunt and visual effects team did a great job to create that urban battle scenario, and yes I'm raving about that cobra maneuver again. Aerial combats in the film are sleekly choreographed, and the brownie points come in watching this in a theatre with optimal sound, because you'll be able to hear the roar of the planes' afterburners when they kick in.
So I guess it's enough on the hardware and the technical aspects of Soar into the Sun, so what about the storyline? It's perfunctory to say the least, with balance achieved in providing the myriad of characters their particular idiosyncrasies and one note role in the narrative. There's the token love interest for Tae-Hoon in Sergeant Se-Young (Shin Se-Kyung), the prettiest and most competent technical ground crew around, her boss and comic relief played by Oh Dal-Su, fellow co-pilot Yoo-Jin (Lee Ha-Na), and the rookie (Lee Jong-Suk) whom I do not know how he'd pass the pilot qualifying tests for his frequent fainting spells when subjected to high G-forces.
Soar into the Sun, also known as R2B: Return to Base, is pure entertainment, where the story didn't really do much, with odd screwball comedy thrown around, it does provide one heck of an adrenaline ride. Rain fans will celebrate at an obligatory scene where their idol appears topless, but the real stars of the film, are the military hardware on display. And this scores from every angle you're seeing this film from. So I'd give it a biased definite recommendation!
Soar Into the Sun opens in cinemas from Thursday.