War movies are a dime a dozen unless there is something fresh or different to set one of them apart from the rest. "Flyboys" is not a red-letter entry into the genre, but it does provide an individuality for itself. Set in the midst of World War I, circa 1916, director Tony Bill and screenwriters Phil Sears, Blake T. Evans and David S. Ward choose not to follow the ground troops, but the lesser-known ones who took to the sky as amateur fighter pilots. Despite some trite shortcuts in the development of the characters and a PG-13 rating that occasionally compromises the more graphic side of combat, what is also appreciative about "Flyboys" are the great pains that have gone into presenting a seemingly very accurate cinematic portrait of a specific time and place in history.
Blaine Rawlings (James Franco) is a young rancher from the wrong side of the tracks who decides to do his part as the Great War between France and Germany rapidly spreads westward. Before he knows it, he is an American volunteer of the French-based Lafayette Escadrille, trained to pilot war planesonly recently inventedand fight against the invading Germans. The men who make up the rest of the squadronincluding Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson), an antisocial veteran flier; Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), a black boxer who wants to be known for something other than the color of his skin; Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine), a son of money whose New Yorker father has already mapped out his future; and Eddie Beagle (David Ellison), an idealist who leaves his parents and girl behind without realizing what's at stakearrive with an almost romanticized vision of fighting for one's country. As lives are lost and the Germans close in, Blaine and his comrades get a bitter taste of reality that leaves them questioning what the war personally means to each of them.
Were it not for the phenomenal, state-of-the-art visual effects, "Flyboys" would look and feel like a product of generations gone by. The pat setup of the narrative and the somewhat simplistic treatment of the characters have an old-fashioned ring to them that is quaint and comfortable. The relationship between Blaine and young French beauty Lucienne (Jennifer Decker) is charmingly chaste and sweepingly romantic, although it never is portrayed as anything greater than it is: an attraction between two people who, even with a language barrier, claim a crucial human connection in times of strife. In between the battle sequences are well-observed character moments that, if not exactly making them one-of-a-kind creations, at least defines their personalities, their pasts, and their dreams for the future. Two particularly effective scenes of this sort come to mindone in which the more experienced Cassidy opens up Blaine's eyes to what the act of war really means, and another where Skinner explains to Blaine the reason he has given up his boxing in exchange for sacrificing his life and becoming a pilot.
The action above the ground is what most audiences will be looking most forward to, and it does not disappoint. The in-air flights and battles, incorporating gorgeously choreographed aerial photography by Henry Braham (2006's "Nanny McPhee
") and seamless visual effects, give life, scope, exhilaration and danger to the action set-pieces. Best of all, they are cohesively edited rather than just a series of frenetic split-second shots that don't build tension. The highlight is, indeed, the face-off with the German-controlled zeppelin, which provides imagesa soldier trying to outrun an explosion atop the zeppelin, for onethat have never quite been captured like this in a film before. Also of note is a Hitchcockian scene on land in which Lucienne must play cat-and-mouse with Germans who have invaded her home in order to escape with her life. Its use of classically orchestrated suspense is as unexpected as it is welcome.
With previous lead roles in "Annapolis
" and "Tristan & Isolde
," this has been quite a prolific year for James Franco. Franco has a similar cool, laid-back swagger and speech to each of his characters, which doesn't say much for his range. Even so, he is that uncommon actor who, what he lacks in diversity of characters, he makes up for in his looks and innate presence. Franco is consistently captivating onscreen in every movie he does, and it doesn't hurt that he uncannily resembles James Dean (whom, for the record, he portrayed in a 2001 cable movie). French actress Jennifer Decker, making her U.S. debut, is excellent as Lucienne. It would have been a fairly thankless role with someone else in it, but Decker astounds with the naturalism, heartbreak, and innocence lost she is able to project onto her face within a single frame. The rest of the performers that make up the Lafayette Escadrille are efficient in decidedly run-of-the-mill parts. Only Jean Reno (2006's "The Da Vinci Code
"), as Captain Georges Thenault, is an afterthought, failing to inject the required gravitas
and command into his character.
At 139 minutes, "Flyboys" is lengthy, but not too long for the material. What is disappointing is that more area couldn't have been covered in the allotted time. The flyboys of the title hang just outside of the war zone, only entering it in their planes. This might be representational of a fighter pilot's day-to-day life, but it does not give urgency to the plot, nor does it ever distinctly clarify what their air fights are over, and moreover, what the war itself is about. Because of this, the film doesn't actually lead to a conclusion so much as it just peters out, vaguely mentions what happened to each character, and ends. If the story "Flyboys" tells isn't as dynamic as it could have been, it does cover with respect and attention to detail a type of soldier within a WWI settingthat of fighter pilotswho have never really gotten their due. For that alone, the picture stands out as more than just a generic clone of other war movies.