Old-fashioned adventure tale takes us back to the good old days: World War I
Directed by Tony Bill
Cast: James Franco, Jean Reno, Jennifer Decker
Embroiled, as we are, in the midst of a thoroughly confusing and morally ambiguous war, it’s quaint and a bit reassuring to allow ourselves a flashback to a simpler time when men were men, wars were noble and killing foreigners was just the right thing to do. The producers of Flyboys may have taken this idea a bit too far, however.
Normally, Hollywood sends us back to World War II, “The Last Good War” as it’s come to be known. Flyboys sends us winging all the way back to World War I, “The War to End All Wars,” as it was rather unprophetically named. Theoretically, this should make the war twice as good. But the last World War I film I can recall is ... um ... wait a minute. ... Well, Howard Hughes made a pretty nice one back in 1930. Oh well. At the very least, Flyboys taps a seriously unexploited genre.
Though it’s set in 1917, the film steals basically all of its inspiration from the typical WWII “squadron” or “platoon” movies. Hollywood cranked out hundreds of these during and after The Big One. Basically, you take a bunch of American stereotypes, toss them in a group and open fire. (Or, as Bart Simpson explained during his classic “Lemon of Troy” episode, “OK, here's the plan: Nelson’s tough guy, Martin's smart guy, and Todd is the quiet religious guy that ends up going crazy.”)
Our featured stereotype, in this instance, is Blaine Rawlings. (How’s that for an all-American hero name?) As played by hunky bad boy James Franco (“Freaks and Geeks,” Spider-Man), Blaine is an authority-bucking orphan, on the run from his West Texas hometown for punching out the evil banker who foreclosed on his family’s ranch. Taking his inspiration from a fortuitous cinematic newsreel, Blaine decides to up and go to France so he can enlist with the famed Lafayette Escadrille.
The Escadrille was a real-life outfit of American pilots who volunteered to defend France against the invading Germans. (At the time, America had not officially entered the war.) Flyboys is loosely based on the true story of the short-lived biplane squadron and is salted with a enough grains of truth to believe that the screenwriters did once read a book on the subject. (Yes, the squad really did have a pet lion named “Whiskey.”)
In short order, our boy Blaine is in the French countryside going through a patented “movie training montage” with The Rich Screw-Up, The Black Guy With Something To Prove, The Surly And Mysterious Veteran and The Quiet Religious Guy That Ends Up Going Crazy. (OK, so this one doesn’t actually go crazy. One of the other stereotypes does.) Aside from a small role by Jean Reno (The Da Vinci Code) as The Gruff But Fair Commander, you won’t recognize any of the other actors in the cast.
Eventually, our cardboard cutout flyboys putter off into the wide blue yonder in their Sopwith Camels to fight the Red Baron--just like Snoopy! The guys you think are going to die do. The guys you think are going to live do. Blaine finds a few moments to strike up a chaste romance with a seriously cute French girl in a whorehouse--who, of course, turns out to be the only seriously cute French girl in a whorehouse who isn’t a whore. Other than that, not much happens. Hell, the evil German forces don’t even have any lines.
The costumes and props all look correct. The film’s various CGI dogfights are rather convincing and do inject a certain amount of excitement into the film. If you’re a fan of World War I dogfights, you’ll get your money’s worth here. Of course, considering the last World War I aviation epic that came out was ... um ... I’m still thinking ... hell, 1966’s The Blue Max probably, there might not be a lot of audience members under the age of 70 clamoring for this film’s hot biplane-on-biplane action.
In fact, with little or no alteration, Flyboys could have easily been produced in 1952. It’s stubbornly old-fashioned style and resolutely PG-13 rating mean there are no naughty words, no naked bodies and the least amount of blood in any war film produced since JFK got elected. Not that there’s anything wrong with a quaint, family-friendly war flick. But it’s just so damn tame. There are moments when Flyboys is mild enough to qualify as a Mormon film. Or at least a Hallmark Hall of Fame miniseries. Which, at a way-too-long 139 minutes, it sometimes feels like.
So, if you loved Pearl Harbor, but felt that it was just too technologically advanced, then this historical war movie has just the right blend of kissin’, shootin’ and propellers for you, grandpa.