Movie Review: Flyboys
By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
Just about everything in the video-gamey World War I picture "Flyboys" rings false, although the planes certainly are terrific. The film takes a strong subject - the Americans who volunteered for the French as aviators in the Lafayette Escadrille - and turns it into romantic slush. Good thing Jean Reno's around to give it some flavor: As the real-life Capt. Thenault, the stalwart French actor goes about his expositional business with gruff panache. You believe this man exists in a 1916 universe. Too many of the other, younger cast members are about as 1916 as "The O.C."
In its opening minutes, the script of "Flyboys" sets some sort of record for captioned scene-setters. First we're in Aberdeen, Texas, meeting our hero, dispossessed hunky rancher Blaine Rawlings (James Franco). Ten seconds later in Lincoln, Neb., we meet another future flyboy (Philip Winchester), and as he waves farewell to his love, the lady in question executes her contractually stipulated trot alongside the train.
In New York City a moneyed and directionless soul (Tyler Labine) embarks on an ocean voyage to fight for his daddy's sake. In Marseilles, meantime, an African-American boxer, Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), lets his manager know he's off to fight for his adopted country. The character is based, loosely, on Eugene Ballard, the first black military pilot. Salis holds the screen in a role that the writers have barely bothered to characterize.
The young men gather in France, and soon the aerial battles with the beastly Hun commence. Cynical, weathered American ace Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson) concentrates on downing his German nemesis, the Black Falcon, the villain who grins that beastly Hun grin before firing. Blaine, meantime, cozies up to one of the locals, Lucienne (Jennifer Decker), who fears her Yank is about to fulfill the grim three- to six-week life expectancy of the Lafayette pilots.
Nobody goes to this kind of picture for the romantic complications on the ground. They go for the eeeeerrrrroooww and the rat-a-tat-tat. Though not lately, audiences have long gone ga-ga for daring young men in flying machines, whether in the age of "Wings" and "Hell's Angels" or "Top Gun." In the Martin Scorsese picture "The Aviator," the high points were the "Hell's Angels" re-creations - outrageously artificial-looking in a very artful way - and the quieter nocturnal glide over L.A. with Howard Hughes and Kate Hepburn. (The rest of "The Aviator" couldn't touch these scenes.)
In "Flyboys," director Tony Bill handles his aerial war well enough. The numerous dogfights, however, are so souped up with digitally composited imagery that the thrills and the machines themselves end up diminished. And do we need such gimmicks as shots of bombs plummeting toward earth, photographed from the weapons' point of view? Leave that morally dubious nonsense to Michael Bay and "Pearl Harbor."
Leading a generic character roster, Franco's laconic Texan may be more smug than stalwart, but so is the movie. A tie-in "Flyboys" video game is now available, designed to coincide with the film's release. I guarantee that script will be better than this one.
Directed by Tony Bill; screenplay by Phil Sears, Blake T. Evans and David S. Ward; cinematography by Henry Braham; edited by Ron Rosen; production design by Charles Wood; music by Trevor Rabin and Paul Linford; produced by Dean Devlin and Marc Frydman. A Metro Goldwyn Mayer release; opens Friday, Sept. 22. Running time: 2:19. MPAA rating: PG-13 (war action violence and some sexual content).
Blaine Rawlings - James Franco
Reed Cassidy - Martin Henderson
Eddie Beagle - David Ellison
Lucienne - Jennifer Decker
Capt. Thenault - Jean Reno