By Sean O'Connell
Airplanes parked on runways aren't very exciting. Sure, the motionless crafts contain the components necessary for flight, but they only achieve their fullest potential when they leave the ground and soar through the skies.
The same can be said for Flyboys. When its protagonists are grounded, Tony Bill's recounting of the birth of World War I fighter pilots resembles every other ham-fisted tale of historic heroism that has come down the cinematic pipe. But the movie triumphs when these men climb into their cockpits and finally fly.
Bland James Franco leads the baby-faced pack of soldiers who, in 1914, felt they had something to prove to their girlfriend/father/squad leader/general. The brave adventurers enlist in France's fledgling Lafayette Escadrille, a small group of pilots trained by General Thenault (Jean Reno, Hollywood's go-to French actor), who pioneered an aerial attack in the Great War against Germany. What these boys don't learn before signing on the dotted line is that the Lafayette Escadrille embarks on what are basically suicide missions. Life expectancy of a pilot in the program is three to six weeks.
That doesn't stop former ranch hand Blaine Rawlings (Franco) from pouring his heart into the war effort. Flyboys takes a perversely upbeat approach to combat. The new recruits march past maimed soldiers, yet forget the horrors of war once they spot the royal estate that serves as their barracks. The surviving members of Lafayette Escadrille regroup each evening to carouse in the military base's makeshift watering hole - since they're all on borrowed time, we're told they can't waste precious minutes honoring the dead. Yet in a scene that rings particularly false, Franco uses his airplane (which we've been lectured is a killing machine) to romance a local French girl (Jennifer Decker) and entertain her brother's children. Try to ignore the fact that the kids' father was decimated in a battle-related explosion not too long ago. We're supposed to be having fun here, people.
These lighter moments and the softened tone conflict with the film's impressive but lethal combat scenes. The men of Lafayette Escadrille risk life and limb on scarred battlefields recreated using the finest digital effects available. As mentioned, Flyboys drastically improves once in the air. Bill and his effects team rocket model planes through dizzying aeronautic sequences, though his action relies too heavily on blue-screen treatments and the airborne clashes grow repetitive over the film's long running time (2 hours and 20 minutes... about 40 minutes too long).
The edgy flight shots and stimulating biplane battles make Flyboys a better movie. They just don't make it a good one.
The two-disc DVD set includes a full-length commentary from Bill and Dean Devlin. The second disc includes making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, and a DVD-ROM game.
It's not a balloon, it's a zeppelin! An airship!
Facts and Figures
In Theaters: Friday 22nd September 2006
Box Office Worldwide: $17.8M
Production compaines: Flyboys Films, Electric Entertainment, Ingenious Film Partners, Skydance Productions
Rotten Tomatoes: 33%
Fresh: 42 Rotten: 85
Cast & Crew
Screenwriter: Blake Evans, David S. Ward, Phil Sears
Starring: James Franco as Blaine Rawlings, Scott Hazell as Cinema Usher, Mac McDonald as Sheriff Detweiller, Philip Winchester as William Jensen, Todd Boyce as Mr. Jensen, Karen Ford as Mrs. Jensen, Ruth Bradley as Laura, Abdul Salis as Eugene Skinner, Tim Pigott-Smith as Mr. Lowry, Tyler Labine as Briggs Lowry, Gail Downey as Mrs. Lowry, David Ellison as Eddie Beagle, Augustin Legrand as L.T. Giroux, Keith McErlean as Vernon Toddman, Jean Reno as Capt. Thenault, Jennifer Decker as Lucienne