When Top Gun was released in 1986, Tom Cruise and company presented aerial combat in thrilling fashion alongside a bombastic soundtrack. Despite the shallow story, the rapid high-octane action sequences, muscular homoerotic camaraderie, and zealous nationalism succinctly tapped in to the ’80s zeitgeist, resulting in an unprecedented level of applications for the American Air Force and rocketing sales of aviator sunglasses.
R2B: Return to Base (R2B: 리턴투베이스) has been marketed as ‘the Korean Top Gun‘ and rightly so as the film borders on plagiarism with scenes, characters and events almost directly ‘lifted’ from Tony Scott’s effort. Yet R2B: Return to Base has precious little of the charm of the original, only earning the title of ‘action movie’ in the final 20 minutes largely due to a reliance on TV drama-esque stereotypes and stock conflicts for much of the film. That said, the aerial sequences are indeed thrilling regardless of the logic – and physics – defying feats.
Cocky pilot Jeong Tae-hoon (Rain/Jung Ji-oon (비/정지훈) is unceremoniously kicked out of his squadron for performing dangerous aerial techniques in front of the public. Demoted into military ranks, Tae-hoon meets beautiful mechanic Yoo Se-yeong (Sin Se-kyeong (신세경) and new recruit Ji Seok-hyeon (Lee Jung-seok (이종석), as well as forming a rivalry with stoic Lee Cheol-hee (Yu Joon-sang (유준상). As friendships and camaraderie builds on base, a new threat presents itself in North Korea where a coup threatens to destabilize the peace between the nations. With tensions escalating, it’s up to Tae-hoon and Cheol-hee to set aside their grudges and work together to save South Korea from the machinations of a power-hungry Northern General and his pilots.
Surprisingly, for a film marketed on its action sequences, R2B: Return to Base features few sequences that excite. Aside from a fun opening that introduces hot-shot pilot Tae-hoon, the real action takes place only during the last 20 minutes during an exhilarating sequence where a rogue North Korean pilot descends on the Yeouido district in central Seoul and an aerial assault on a Northern base. Director Kim Dong-weon (김동원) clearly used the majority of the budget on such high-octane events, conveying the speed and danger of the dogfights convincingly and effectively. The aerial battle above Seoul is the genuine highlight of the film as bullets fly and windows shatter on iconic landmarks in wonderful use of slow-motion, producing an entertainingly horrifying attack on the capital city.
However for the vast majority of its running time R2B: Return to Base plays out akin to a low-grade TV drama. All the stereotypes are present with frustrating clarity. The hero Tae-hoon has obviously been modeled on Tom Cruise’s Maverick, yet Rain/Jung Ji-hoon doesn’t have the same charisma to make the protagonist likable. Maverick’s arrogance and swagger fits perfectly with American cultural values; Tae-hoon is generally an insolent, selfish fool that defies orders for the sake of it. His love interest, in the form of Se-yeong, fares worse as she is reduced to yet another beautiful-yet-damaged female role, a woman in need of rescuing from herself despite her talents. Outside of the main two protagonists are an array of supporting cast members, so much so that precious little time is given to establish them as worthy of inclusion. Cheol-hee arguably receives the most screen-time as the rival, although his character development is stunted which dilutes the antagonism with Tae-hoon. Novice Seok-hyeon is present mainly for comedy value as he screams and faints during flights, providing entertainment. Comedy is also present in the form of two workmen fulfilling military service, but after featuring in a handful of quips they unceremoniously disappear altogether. Other co-pilots feature in the film such as Oh Yoo-jin (Lee Ha-na (이하나) and partner Jo Tae-bong (Jeong Kyung-ho (정경호), but again their inclusion is a limited attempt to add melodrama to the proceedings. All the of the characters are involved in stock narrative events that help to establish relationships but do little to propel the plot, which is conveyed as an afterthought.
One of the amazing features of Korean cinema is the continual representation of North Korean adversaries in three-dimensional, semi-sympathetic roles. R2B: Return to Base opts for the American approach of ‘good vs. evil’, barely giving the Northern enemies faces let alone impetus. This would perhaps not be as bad – it was a feature of Top Gun – if not for their last minute inclusion within the narrative, as suddenly a rogue Northern general launches an unprovoked attack on Seoul seemingly from out of nowhere. The assault does allow for the inclusion of Korean nationalism and masculine bravado however as the American military attempts to dominate the retaliation to embarrassing effect, as well as providing Tae-hoon and Cheol-hee with something to do other than bicker.
In terms of performance, Sin Se-kyeong is arguably the most prominent as mechanic Se-yeong. The actress has little room to extend herself given the highly stereotyped nature of the role, yet she performs well. The chemistry between her and co-star Rain/Jung Ji-hoon however is entirely absent. Rain/Jung Ji-hoon competently performs the role of arrogant pilot Tae-hoon but unfortunately he is also hindered but the script which portrays him as an immature fool rather than overly confident, a feature which his charisma tries and fails to overcome.
R2B: Return to Base desperately wants to be ‘the Korean Top Gun‘, and succeeds in as much as containing some highly thrilling and entertaining aerial sequences that convey the speed and danger of aerial dogfights. Yet such sparse combat scenes cannot hide the vacuous, TV drama-esque narrative and stereotypes that dominate most of the running time, as well as the lack of threat featured by the caricatured North Korean adversaries. With the last minute inclusion of masculine bravado and nationalism, R2B: Return to Base rises out of its quagmire yet still fails to obtain its full potential.