Flyboys looks great but crashes due to a cliché-ridden script.
Thursday, September 21, 2006
It has been quite some time since Hollywood released a bonafide pro-war movie. But that’s exactly what Flyboys is, hearkening back to a more innocent time, all the way back to World War I, when the Germans were evil and the French wore cute moustaches and were totally helpless. Yes, back when they were dependent on the US, rather than standing up to us and mouthing off, before we knew the hot, salty taste of Freedom Fries, when war made Boys into Men, and if some died along the way, it was for a noble cause. And everyone, including the men who don’t make it, finds some sort of redemption, even the guy who loses his hand.
The film takes place in the days before the US entered the war, just as the airplane was becoming produced on a large scale, when the French were quickly falling to the despicable Germans and the only thing holding back the tide was the Lafayette Escadrille, a small unit of biplanes flown exclusively by American volunteers. Though the opening credits explain that the picture is “Based on the True Story,” it is hard to believe that World War I was this PG-13. There is violence, sure, but we are never brought anywhere near the horrors we know occurred during that conflict, and even the trench warfare doesn’t come anywhere near the horrors most Americans took in when they read All Quiet on the Western Front in high school. And for young men in combat, there is very little swearing, and no one smokes.
James Franco plays Blaine Rawlings (a seriously American name if there ever was one), a young cowboy whose family farm has been foreclosed upon and who needs a place to be. We know Franco is a talented actor, as we’ve seen him do good work in Freaks and Geeks and the two Spiderman films, but he continues to pick style over substance when he’s a leading man. And even though he’s certainly a good-looking dude, that sneer will always make him look like that smarmy kid who graduated from your rival high school. Still, Franco isn’t the problem with Flyboys—a reliance on war movie clichés is. Germans equal evil, French equal wimps, and Americans equal saviors. Most of Blaine’s compatriots fit directly into wartime standards; there’s the rich kid with daddy issues, the token black guy who is accepted in France, but not stateside, the guy who can’t hack it, the Midwestern doofus, the religious guy (who doubles as the guy who wears glasses), and the battle-hardened squad leader who has already seen too much. Jean Reno is their commanding officer, brought on, it would seem, to lend a real French accent to the film, and presumably to pay off the mortgage on a new chateau or a nice boat.
In fact, they are all such clichés that we don’t care much when guys get blown out of the sky during dogfights. And even though Franco has his hands full wooing a French hottie (Jennifer Decker), lending the film some of its best moments and a wholly unnecessary additional half-hour, the deadly aerial ballet is what Flyboys is all about. The battles just look great, and looking great is what the entire movie does very well. The production values are terrific, the biplanes and the CGI that manipulates them are lovely, and the floor-length leather jackets the young flyers wear are sweet. The French countryside, as seen from the early days of the airplane, is awe-inspiring, just as it must have been for the real daring young men in their flying machines, way back when.
But while Flyboys is pretty to look at, it isn’t enough to glaze over the lazy screenplay, which fails at expressing the war as the monumental calamity that it was. A movie flies or dies by its script, after all, and Flyboys, by depending on standard war movie themes and thinly written, stereotypical characters, ends up flapping like a peacock instead of flying like an eagle. And it’s a shame—the premise is a good one, but Flyboys becomes more predictable and irritating as it goes on. Conflicts between American and German fliers are construed and end exactly the way you expect them to. Yes, even the climactic showdown between our boy Blaine and the German Red Baron ends up as little more than a high-flying game of chicken with machine guns. And if you can’t guess how it will end, well, you’ve got your head in the clouds.
FLYBOYS ( * * )
Directed by Tony Bill. • Starring James Franco, Jean Reno, David Ellison and Jennifer Decker. • PG-13, 139 min. • At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.