THE BOMBING (aka UNBREAKABLE SPIRIT, aka AIR STRIKE) (2018) review

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Xiao Feng’s The Bombing was reportedly the most expensive Chinese film at the time it was produced. But after extensive reshoots and accusations of financial fraud (part of a wider tax evasion scandal in China that has had Fan Bingbing as its official face), the film is now being released a full three years after production, without much fanfare despite a massive cast and the participation of Mel Gibson – a man who knows a thing or two about making a fine war film – as an artistic consultant. Set in 1939 during the second Sino-Japanese war, it weaves together three main storylines: U.S Air Force commander Jack Johnson (Bruce Willis), who trains Chinese pilots Lei Tao (Nicholas Tse), An Minxun (Song Seung-heon), Cheng Ting (William Chan) and many others to fend off Japanese air raids (of which there were 268 between 1938 and 1943); civilians in Chongqing trying to live a semblance of a life despite the repeated bombings, with a Mahjong competition being organized in a teahouse owned by Uncle Cui (Fan Wei); and former pilot Xue Gangtou (Liu Ye), tasked with taking a truck carrying precious and mysterious crates to a military base, and who on the way picks up a scientist (Wu Gang) carrying two pigs of a leaner, faster-reproducing breed that may be key in fighting the famine, a nurse (Ma Su) bringing orphans to a school, as well as a shady stranger (Geng Le).

Depending on whom you ask, The Bombing cost either 22 million dollars, or 65, or 90. On the evidence of the film’s visuals, we’d lean more towards 22. There are copious dogfights, but they’re often painfully fake-looking, with shiny, weightless CGI and poor green-screen work. There are plentiful bombing scenes, but most of them take place in the same 50 square meters of Chongqing. Despite Mel Gibson’s credited role as an artistic consultant, the film has none of the visceral power of his directing efforts, see-sawing awkwardly between the good-old-boy vibe of 1960’s war epics like Guy Hamilton’s Battle of Britain and a self-consciously retro sense of the melodramatic reminiscent of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. And while legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (of such a merciless depiction of war as Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter) is also credited as a consultant, Yang Shu’s cinematography is strangely flat.

The aforementioned three interwoven strands of plot are unequal. At the Air Force base, there’s mostly flavorless gung-ho speeches and macho posturing: Bruce Willis sleepily admonishes his pilots, William Chan and Song Seung-heon have a rain-soaked fight over who will get to fly the shiny new plane, dogfights are a jumble. In Chongqing, there’s endless, faintly-comedic bickering between Fan Wei and Che Yongli, punctuated by repetitive bombing scenes. Fan is superb, though, and the film owes one of its rare gut-wrenching moments to him. The best strand is the one that follows Liu Ye (a poster boy for Chinese war epics avec City of Life and Death, The Founding of a Republic, The Founding of a Party, My War, and The Founding of an Army), his truck and his passengers; it’s a genuinely engaging adventure, at times tense (Liu Ye and Geng Le’s suspicious pas-de-deux), at times charming (Wu Gang’s piglets and Ma Su’s orphans steal the show), and at times moving (wait till the orphans arrive at their destination).

Around these three strands, there’s the ghosts of largely deleted subplots: the film opens with Fan Bingbing as a schoolteacher begging Chen Daoming to get her pupils to safety. They’re never seen again. Adrien Brody pops up twice in an ill-defined role, and it’s obvious that a love story between him and Eva Huang – who appears in very fugitive shots – was cut. Bruce Willis’ daughter Rumer Willis is third-billed (!) but appears for thirty seconds with a cardboard English accent. Then there’s pointless cameos: Simon Yam, Ray Lui and Kenny Bee act as headquarters wallpaper for mere seconds, while Nicholas Tse, prominent on many of the film’s posters, has two minutes of screentime.

It’s obvious that the film’s production has been a financial and planning mess, and thus it’s a minor victory that it remains a solid war epic – mostly thanks to the Liu Ye plotline. And much like Dante Lam’s Operation Red Sea, it’s generally more gung-ho than propagandist, dwelling long enough on the horrors of war to avoid falling into the latter category. One particular scene where a cave in which civilians sought refuge from the bombing starts collapsing on them is a hellish, unforgettable vision, another of the film’s fleeting moments of true power. But a few minutes later, there’s a borderline-slapstick scene with Liu Ye running around naked on his wedding night with an undetonated bomb. We kid you not.

Long Story Short: The Bombing is an uneven war epic: flat gung-ho posturing, poor CGI, awkward tonal shifts and pointless cameos are offset by an engaging subplot, a few excellent performances and a handful of gut-wrenching moments. **1/2

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