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"Flyboys" Barely Gets off the Ground

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • 2006 9 Sep
  • COMMENTS
"Flyboys" Barely Gets off the Ground

DVD Release Date:  January 30, 2007 
Theatrical Release Date:  September 22, 2006
Rating:  PG-13 (for war action violence and some sexual content)
Genre:  Action
Run Time:  139 min.
Director:  Tony Bill
Actors:  James Franco, Tyler Labine, Abdul Salis, Michael Jibson, David Ellison, Martin Henderson, Jean Reno, Jennifer Decker

Earlier this year, James Franco starred in “Annapolis” – ostensibly a movie about the military, but, in reality, a dopey coming-of-age drama merely draped in a military uniform. Now Franco takes the lead in “Flyboys,” another film that uses a war backdrop (World War I in this case) as window dressing for a formulaic story of love, honor and defeating the enemy.

“Flyboys” is, we’re told, “inspired by a true story,” but it’s hard to see how adherence to actual facts could have made for a less interesting story. An intriguing historical premise – a French effort to recruit Americans to fly combat missions against the Germans – gives way to a by-the-numbers story about a ragtag group of young Americans with checkered pasts, who find refuge from their domestic troubles by volunteering to fight on behalf of the French during World War I prior to official U.S. involvement in that war.

These include a boy who wants to earn his father’s respect (Tyler Labine); an African-American (Abdul Salis) who has to prove himself to his Caucasian comrades; a religious man (Michael Jibson) who paints Bible verses on his airplane; a man with a suspicious past (David Ellison); a hardened vet (Martin Henderson) who keeps the young recruits from getting overconfident; and a commanding officer (Jean Reno) who, when confronted with punishable offenses by those in his command, offers the violators a second chance. These men are part of the Lafayette Escadrille – fighter pilots who took on the Germans over the skies of Europe.

James Franco stars as Blaine Rawlings, a young tough chased out of town by local law-enforcement and into the arms of the Lafayette Escadrille. Infatuated with the idea of flying airplanes, Rawlings and the other American volunteers are quickly brought down to earth by Reed Cassidy (Henderson), an ace pilot whose number of “kills” (marked with X's on a tavern wall) commands the respect of the novice fighters. Cassidy calmly informs the men that the life expectancy of fighter pilots is three to six weeks. Joined in a common cause, the men battle the Germans for control of the skies over Europe.

The pilots are encouraged by others to do “something worthy of [their] name[s],” and, in the movie’s most inspirational moment of dialogue, French Captain Thenault tells the young Americans to “only do what your conscience commands, and your courage allows.” These ideas are noble and help the movie take flight. But the words don’t have time to sink in before the audience-reaction cues begin to grate. An aggressive musical score is one of the chief culprits – for example, strings swell anytime the young pilots see their flying machines.

When one aircraft runs out of gas and crashes, and the injured pilots are tended to by prostitutes, things start to unravel. “This ain’t so bad,” says one of the wounded pilots, while the hurt Rawlings falls for a fresh-faced woman who, he says, is far too pretty to be a prostitute (surprise! she’s not one). A devout fighter says he “keeps his Bible close” and gustily belts out “Onward Christian Soldiers” while blowing the enemy out of the skies.

There are plenty of nifty aerial fight scenes in “Flyboys,” but it all seems strangely perfunctory. The film simply isn’t interested in the Big Picture – what caused WWI or how the war ended. The film’s climax is also its conclusion; there is no denouement.

Although the film is not grievously offensive, it is never more than merely serviceable storytelling. The Lafayette Escadrille is a great war-time story, and it deserves a great film. However, “Flyboys” is not that film. In its desire to reach a broad audience, it intersperses action with romance, settling for clichés in both instances. The bland performances from a mostly undistinguished cast don’t help matters.

Franco has had a terrible year, on the basis of his performance here and in “Annapolis,” as well as a cameo in the doomed, derided remake of the “The Wicker Man.” His square-jawed glower  and James Dean looks can’t disguise a deficit of charisma that leaves “Flyboys” grounded – and which should send his future leading-man prospects into a tailspin.

AUDIENCE: Teens and up

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity:  A few profanities.
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Drinking, including some reluctant imbibing by a teetotaler.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Prostitutes care for two wounded pilots.
  • Violence:  Fights in the air; a pilot uses a revolver to commit suicide before his plane is engulfed in flames; destruction of several airplanes and a blimp; a shocked pilot is slapped across the face; a recruit confesses to a past crime; a pilot’s pinned hand is hacked off with a shovel; a man falls off his horse.