Some movies are born tragic, some movies acquire tragedy, and some movies have tragedy thrust upon them. Air Strike (formerly known as The Bombing, and Unbreakable Spirit before that) falls into all three categories. This big-budget Chinese World War II movie—which stars Bruce Willis alongside a smattering of Chinese A-listers—depicts a tragic period of Chinese history, experienced a tragically arduous production process, and had its Chinese release tragically canceled at the last minute due to a tax scandal.
However, tragedy isn’t an excuse to avoid this movie; it’s quite the opposite. If you’re a war movie buff or Chinese film enthusiast with a strong sense of schadenfreude, you should really watch Air Strike through non-Chinese theaters and streaming services (there’s still a US/international release). Just shut off your brain, listen to Bruce Willis growl, and experience a movie that has so many layers of tragedy, you can’t help but keep watching for novelty’s sake. Air Strike might just go down in the annals of film history as a Sharknado-esque cult hit, and an excellent example of everything that can go wrong with making a movie in China.
Born from Tragedy
Between 1938 and 1943, the Japanese military conducted hundreds of air raids against Chongqing, China’s provisional capital during the Second Sino-Japanese War (which, in the West’s eyes, gets folded into World War II starting 1941). Tens of thousands of civilians died, as China’s fledgling Air Force struggled to fend off superior Japanese equipment and numbers before assistance from allies like the US helped turn the tide.
Chongqing bears scars from the war even to this day: the city still has underground air raid shelters (often converted to commercial purposes) and numerous museums about WWII-related topics. Recently, local officials have compared the Bombing of Chongqing to the Nanjing Massacre and London Blitz, calling for another museum to help remember the traumatic raids.
While it’s not a museum, Air Strike attempts to carry that torch of trauma, telling a multi-threaded story about both pilots and civilians amidst the Bombing of Chongqing. Our primary protagonist is Xue Gangtou (played by Liu Ye), a Chinese Air Force pilot temporarily assigned to guide a truck carrying secret cargo back to military headquarters—an agonizingly difficult task given constant Japanese strafing and espionage.
Meanwhile, other members of Xue’s squadron train under an American advisor, Colonel Jack Johnson (played by Bruce Willis). In futile attempts to defend Chongqing, the squadron files outmoded Poliparkov I-16 fighters against Japanese Zeros and G3M bombers—a combination bound to please aviation enthusiasts for its sheer novelty (I’ve never seen another movie with I-16s). All throughout, the pilots’ lives intersect with various civilian characters, including a professor of porcine studies, a reporter from Xinhua Daily, a mahjong-loving teahouse owner, and a teacher caring for students from a bombed-out school.
An Americanized Anti-Japanese Drama
Predictably, Air Strike contains loads of death and destruction—maybe too much. The film feels like an Americanized anti-Japanese drama; a novel concept, though not necessarily for the right reasons.
Over the past few years, sensational anti-Japanese dramas have flooded Chinese television, to the government’s chagrin. With infamously garish scenes (ex. “crotch bombs”) and badly-written dialog, these dramas offer easy entertainment at the expense of historical tastefulness. While Air Strike isn’t as gaudy as most of those dramas, it feels cut from the same cloth (with slightly higher quality control).
During the movie, the Japanese bomb a school, a hospital (Adrien Brody randomly guest stars as a doctor), and a church (with priest and children still inside), among other targets. While the Japanese certainly bombed those kinds of buildings in real life, those three scenes feel perfunctory. Rather than advancing the plot in meaningful ways, the three bombings seem inserted to check off a list of what Western viewers might find the most offensive.
For international releases, Air Strike uses dubs. As someone who understands Chinese, I found those dubs both agonizing and hilarious. All the Chinese characters speak in “Chinese-accented” English, yet repeatedly mis-pronunce Chongqing (“Chung-kweeeeeiiing!!!”) and butcher each others’ Chinese names.
Even the non-Chinese parts of Air Strike’s dialog offer…amusement. I imagine somebody wrote a first draft of the script in Chinese, added Bruce Willis’ character afterwards, and then underpaid a translator to convert all the lines into English. The result? Pricelessly bad lines like Bruce Willis saying: “I order you to escort this young lady around the base… that’s an order!”
If you find Air Strike’s lines amusing, you’ll be even more entertained at its haphazard, trope-ridden plot. It seems like the filmmakers swapped out all the character development for more explosions. At first, the Chinese pilots hold a grudging view of Bruce Willis’ character; fifteen minutes later, they throw him a jovial birthday party. Amidst bombing and strafing, love interests rise out of nowhere and inspire shotgun weddings. There’s even a sudden fight scene between two pilots competing to fly the one P-40 Warhawk the squadron newly receives—screw training and flight assignments, apparently a fistfight can decide who gets a sweeter ride.
At Least It’s Not In Production Hell
I’m not surprised Air Strike turned out like this. In Chinese cinema, the combination of foreign guest stars, excessive A-list cameos, massive budgets, and geopolitical significance is a perfect recipe for disaster. In such projects, quality usually takes a backseat to profit, meaning fickle businessmen end up driving cinematic decisions—to disastrous effect.
Globally ambitious Chinese movies like Air Strike have high expectations, but low ability to manage such expectations among conflicting stakeholders. Producers, hungry for mass market appeal, likely pushed Air Strike’s creative team to include Bruce Willis, Adrien Brody, and cameos from Chinese celebrities like Nicholas Tse and Fan Bingbing. To placate not only their financiers but also the demands of all these stars, the creative team must’ve made compromise after compromise that resulted in a messy, trope-filled plot.
That’s just pre-production. Air Strike finished shooting in 2015, but post-production took three more years. Though the film reportedly had a US$65 million budget, director Xiao Feng experienced difficulties in paying his post-production team—likely because one of the film’s major financial backers absconded to the US in March 2016 after being charged with fraud.
Death and Taxes
Of course, Air Strike won’t screen in any Chinese theaters.
Why? Because somebody made the supremely wise choice of paying superstar actress Fan Bingbing US$4.2M for a 30-second cameo as a school principal who dies three minutes into the movie.
Unfortunately, Fan reported a much smaller sum than US$4.2M to China’s tax authorities, who recently caught on to her habit (not just for Air Strike) of underreporting earnings and slapped her with a US$129M fine. In the wake of Fan’s scandal, Air Strike saw its Chinese premiere cancelled a week before it was supposed to happen, depriving the film of its largest market.
Years from now, film industry analysts may look back on Air Strike as an example of Murphy’s Law, while those who love action or war movies might remind themselves: “hey, how much do you think they paid Bruce Willis to star in this?” This movie is filled with so many flavors of misery and misfortune—whether with its plot, its production quality, or its financing—that it’s like a flaming car crash: you know you shouldn’t enjoy it, but it burns so vividly that you just can’t look away. Like Sharknado or “crotch bomb” anti-Japanese dramas, Air Strike might just have the embers needed to spark a cult following.
As someone who studied Chinese history, I am sad about how Air Strike’s haphazardness obscures the brutality that occurred during the Second Sino-Japanese War. However, just as horrible car crashes might go viral on social media and shock more people into driving safely, if Air Strike gains a following, it might do some good. Especially outside China, the movie’s sensationalism may encourage people to do their own research into China’s war against Japan, and perhaps Hollywood luminaries will have a better idea of what they’re getting themselves into the next time a Chinese billionaire comes knocking. Tragedy sucks—but, as dark as it sounds, something better might rise from the ashes.
Air Strike (Chinese: 大轰炸)—China. Dialog in Chinese, dubbed in English for US release. Directed by Xiao Feng. Running time 1hr 36min. First released October 26, 2018 Starring Liu Ye, Bruce Willis, Song Seung-heon, William Chan.