Jennifer Decker and James Franco in MGM’s “Flyboys.”
Neglecting the nuances of the story it claims to depict, “Flyboys” relies on scattered action scenes to outshine a disjointed plot, formulaic characters and a cast of mostly novice players.
Set in France in 1917, prior to the official American entry into the First World War, “Flyboys” follows the story of Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of the French Air Service made up of volunteer American fighter pilots.
While this MGM epic may have been inspired by a true story, its interpretation of historic events seems more influenced by decades of invented Hollywood war flicks. Count the clichés – it helps alleviate the tedium.
Sure, watching the exhilarating dogfights over France might be worth the price of admission. The aerial action is well-paced and well-developed, pitting underdog American aces against demonized German aviators. The computer-generated visual effects generally don’t impede the overall believability of combat, though cynical viewers might question the inevitability of a spin-off “Flyboys” game franchise. The resulting series of remarkable sequences lends vibrancy to the screen and will undoubtedly impress moviegoers.
Just don’t expect to find much happening on the ground.
On the airfield in France, a ragtag group of Americans assemble for service in Lafayette Escadrille – each imbued with some poorly contrived motivation. First, there’s Blaine Rawlings, played by James Franco, a lonely cowboy without a family or a farm (the bank foreclosed). Pudgy rich kid Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine) joins only because his authoritarian father is ashamed of him. Throw in a dim-witted criminal running from the law, a Midwesterner hoping to win medals like his father and grandfather and – probably the most interesting character among them – Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), the son of a slave who fled racism in America to become a boxer in France.
Never before have World War I era aviators looked so professionally groomed, complete with hair highlights and perfect, sparkling teeth.
Most of these cardboard cutouts are as stale as they are familiar. The cheesy Petrarchan romance between Rawlings and Lucienne (Jennifer Decker) hardly helps matters. Aside from Salis, who does a noble job of breathing life into a two-dimensional role, only veteran actor Jean Reno, playing Captain Thenault, offers audiences a credible performance.
“Flyboys” is more a disappointment than a failure. Instead of limiting the horrors of trench warfare to one improbable rescue scene, the producers could have reaffirmed the words of English soldier-poet Wilfred Owen whose chilling “Dulce et Decorum Est” remains a brutal summation of the First World War. Instead of simply updating outmoded Hollywood battlefield sagas glorifying war with top-of-the-line visual effects, the producers might have opted to delve into the lives of those who fought to discover their actual stories.
Skinner, for instance, is based on Eugene Bullard, the first African American military pilot. Bullard’s story is more interesting and more significant than any of the manufactured, manicured characters populating the film.
Director Tony Bill’s intentions may have been good, and the film may well raise awareness of this all-but-forgotten footnote in American history books. In the end, “Flyboys” makes war look pretty, focusing on flashy action, panoramic scenery and stylized stereotypes instead of paying tribute to the real heroes who found the courage to fight for their convictions.