January 26, 2007
Flyboys (2006) attempts to tell the story of the Lafayette Escadrille – American pilots who volunteered to fly in the French Air Service during World War. As the war rages on and millions of soldiers die, America has yet to enter the war. Inspired by a newsreel depicting how volunteers have gone to Europe to train as fighter pilots, Blaine Rawlings (Franco) from Texas decides to sign up. It also doesn’t hurt that he has just had his ranch seized and is in trouble with the law so for him the war is a way out or a fresh new start. In Nebraska, a young man hopes to carry on in his family’s tradition of military service. Briggs Lowry (Labine), a rich, spoiled New Yorker who lacks direction is sent overseas to make something of himself. Meanwhile, in France, Eugene Skinner (Salis) is a promising young boxer that decides to volunteer because he wants to give something back to the country that took him in.
The four men find themselves assigned to the same squadron but they’re treated like crap by the other veteran pilots until they prove themselves in combat. In the meantime, they are put through a series of training exercises by their French instructor (Reno) who also shows them all kinds of offensive and defensive tactics that will help them survive in the air. Their training is broadly sketched, offering little insight into how these guys were transformed into fighter pilots. We are given even less insight into how they bond as a squad. They hang out together but there is little chemistry between the actors which is strange considering that director Tony Bill has a reputation of working well with actors.
It doesn’t help that he is let down at every opportunity by the screenplay. Flyboys trots out the usual stereotypes (the cocky ace pilot, the rich snob, the patriotic one, etc.) and then is unable to flesh them out into believable, distinctive characters. The dialogue is merely functional often bordering on the banal. That being said, the aerial dogfight sequences are well staged, taking us right in the middle of these deadly battles thanks to spiffy looking CGI and exciting choreography.
What the hell happened to James Franco’s career? The young actor showed such initial promise and has made some dodgy choices in between Spider-Man films with Annapolis (2006) and Tristan & Isolde (2006) – both predictable clunkers. He’s a good actor but lousy, at times, at picking the right projects as he sleepwalks his way through this movie. Martin Henderson, surprisingly, comes off with the strongest performance in the movie as the veteran squad leader who’s seen too much and remains something of an enigma to his fellow pilots. He even has a nice scene with Franco where his character explains what motivates him to fight in this war.
The romance between Rawlings and Lucienne (Decker), a cute, young Frenchwoman is awkwardly handled with embarrassingly clichéd dialogue and zero chemistry between the two actors. Because all of the characters are so thinly-sketched, we don’t get to know them and therefore ever care about what happens to them. Even a superficial popcorn movie like Top Gun (1986) made you care about the characters.
Flyboys does do a fairly decent job of showing how dangerous it was for pilots in WWI with no parachutes and very little protection from enemy gunfire. Tony Bill’s strengths lie in more modest films that are intimate in feel and scope, like Untamed Heart (1993). He seems out of his element with this war epic as he tries to retain a personal touch but is let down time and time again by the screenplay.
There is an audio commentary by director Tony Bill and producer Dean Devlin. They shot the entire film in England (for financial reasons) and used it to double for Texas, New York and France. They touch upon shooting the entire film with digital cameras and how they were able to mimic film stock with it. Bill and Devlin point out what scenes were digitally enhanced which does get tedious after awhile in this more technically oriented track.