Starring: James Franco, Martin Henderson, Jean Reno, Jennifer Decker, David Ellison, Philip Winchester, Abdul Salis , Tyler Labiner
Director: Tony Bill
Going into “Flyboys” with low expectations is about the best chance you have of leaving the theater in high spirits. It’s no cinematic masterpiece, but the latest WWI drama is still a surprisingly enjoyable thrill ride… when the story takes place in the air, that is. When it’s on the ground, the film is riddled with more holes than the average fighter plane, and not only features a series of incredibly clichéd subplots, but also some scandalously bad acting by star James Franco (who apparently didn’t get the memo from his hairdresser that men didn’t frost their tips in 1917). Fortunately, a majority of “Flyboys” does take place above ground, and while pretty-boy Franco is technically the headliner, the film’s real stars are the planes themselves; or at least the men who digitally created them.
Proudly wearing the “inspired by a true story” badge on its sleeve, “Flyboys” tells the tale of the 38 young Americans who volunteered long before the U.S. entered the war. Enlisting in the French military’s elite air unit, the Lafayette Escadrille, these men also became their country’s very first fighter pilots. Told from the point of view of Texan rancher, Blaine Rawlings (Franco) – who “volunteered” for the war based solely on his desire to leave the country – the film herds together a seemingly formulaic group of characters to join him in the ongoing European conflict. There’s the son (Philip Winchester) out to prove himself to his military father, the mysterious kid looking to escape his troubled past (David Ellison), the Bible-thumping Jesus freak (Michael Jibson), the rich white boy (Tyler Labiner), and the black recruit (Abdul Salis) meant to instigate some kind of racial barrier between the other enlistees.
As it turns out, all of these men are based on real people (or at least an amalgamation of a few), and while their stories prove an interesting read, it’s hardly worth investing in any of them. As the movie explains, the life expectancy of a fighter pilot in WWI is about three to six weeks, so while it’s nice to think that they’re all going to make it out alive, it’s pretty unbelievable that even a few do. The exception to the rule, however, is Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson), a revenge-driven loner known as the squadron’s ace with over twenty kills. Oh, and did I mention that he has a full-grown, pet lion? Well, he does.
Okay, so the plot is about as cheesy as they come – and that’s not even counting the hackneyed lost-in-translation love story between Rawlings and some French girl (Jennifer Decker), which, by the way, has been done before (i.e. “Love Actually”) – but when the film is taken into the air, it’s an absolute marvel to watch. The CGI-created dog fights radiate an Old Hollywood feel (think Howard Hughes’ WWI pet project, “Hell’s Angels”), with most of the action shot so tightly that you might as well be riding shotgun, and if you can endure the slower, more story-driven moments, the payoff is certainly worth it. Unfortunately, the film runs about twenty minutes longer than it should, and as your patience begins to wear, the action sequences actually become less satisfying. They’re still the best part about “Flyboys” – heck, they’re the only part – but if you’ve been anxiously awaiting the next great war flick, it might just be enough.
The single-disc release of “Flyboys” is, quite frankly, a complete waste of your money. Featuring only a lackluster audio commentary with director Tony Bill and producer Dean Devlin, diehard fans of the film would be better off laying down the extra cash for the two-disc special edition, which includes deleted scenes, production featurettes and more. Why both versions are being released on the same day is beyond me, but then again, that’s movie studios for you.