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FLYBOYS(director: Tony Bill; screenwriters: David S. Ward/based on an original screenplay by Phil Sears and Blake Evans; cinematographer: Henry Braham; editor: Chris Blunden/Ron Rosen; music: Trevor Rabin; cast: James Franco (Blaine Rawlings), Jean Reno (Captain Thenault), Martin Henderson (Reed Cassidy), Jennifer Decker (Lucienne), David Ellison (Eddie Beagle), Tyler Labine (Briggs Lowry), Abdul Salis (Eugene Skinner), Philip Winchester (William Jensen), Michael Jibson (Lyle Porter), Gunnar Winbergh (Black Falcon); Runtime: 129; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Dean Devlin/Marc Frydman; MGM; 2006)
“Just what we need during these dark times, an empty film that glorifies war.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Just what we need during these dark times, an empty film that glorifies war. It tells the true story of the legendary 1917 Lafayette Escadrille, a French squadron of international fighters (it was shot in England), through the eyes of American flyers who volunteered to fight for France before America entered World War I at a time when planes were primitive. The boys are inexperienced but manage to become brave flyers, who just love the action of those dogfights–shot as a computer-generated video game fantasy (The special effects are by Double Negative, who also did the CGI for “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”). Tony Bill (“Five Corners”/ “Untamed Heart”), who happens to be a pilot and WWI enthusiast, keeps it filled with an unbearable endless supply of clichés and has no trouble moving from lame comic set pieces to superficially told horror of war stories to a bland soap opera romance. It felt like it stole the heart out of many other such formulaic war tales, but couldn’t get any heart into its formulaic telling. This clinker was so lackluster and the acting so atrocious, it makes Howard Hughes’ 1930 nonsense tale about flying aces, Hell’s Angels, look like a serious work of art in comparison. The original screenplay by Phil Sears and Blake Evans, plus writer David Ward, make everything trite, sappy and predictable. It telegraphs every banal and sentimental message sent and by the end proves it has no agenda but to entertain with escapist dogfight scenes.

The featured American thrill-seekers who come aboard in 1916 in Verdun and fight with the Lafayette Escadrille are: an orphaned pretty boy cowboy from Texas, who just lost his family’s big spread, Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), and had to get out of town in a hurry after punching out the banker responsible for the foreclosure and decides to join after watching a newsreel in a movie theater; wealthy fat boy Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine), who got the boot from Harvard and thinks he can prove himself to his stuffy dad in France’s war; an American Negro boxer fighting in France, Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), who joins because he wants to show his appreciation to France for not being prejudice; your run-of-the-mill screw-up looking for the military to straighten him out, but who arouses suspicion because he’s a German-American, gave a false name and can’t shoot worth a lick, Eddie Beagle (David Ellison); a young Nebraska man from a family of military heroes who must also be a hero, William Jensen (Philip Winchester); a Bible-toting Christian named Lyle Porter (Michael Jibson); and their world weary brave but mysterious squadron leader, Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson), who is not yet thirty but has seen so many pilots killed that he becomes a loner and a big drinker, raises his glass for endless bawdy toasts to his fallen comrades and goes to the local whorehouse to forget his troubles. They are under the supervision of the very French Captain Thenault (Jean Reno), who mocks the Americans for not speaking French but applauds them for their spunk to come here and fight–therefore will bend the rules for them at times.

Rawlings becomes the de facto leader of the American misfits, and begins a romance with a pretty local farm girl living nearby, Lucienne (Jennifer Decker), who is not able to speak English. The rest of the scenes break down between many dogfights in the personal rigged biplanes, a battle with a dirigible on a mission to bomb Paris (where the film climaxed and should have ended, thereby cutting off something like 30 belabored minutes), and it eventually builds to the expected one-on-one dogfight between the ace American flyer and the German ace, called the Black Falcon (Gunnar Winbergh)–which didn’t seem all too exciting.

The material was stale, the film lifeless, and at well over two hours it makes for an arduous watch. These flyboys suffer no disillusionment that the war billed as the one “To end all wars” didn’t live up to expectations. It’s the kind of safe war film that Bush, Saddam and the current crazy guy who is head of Iran can all probably find agreeable.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”