James Franco as Blaine Rawlings
Martin Henderson as Reed Cassidy
Jean Reno as Captain Thenault
Jennifer Decker as Lucienne
Philip Winchester as William Jensen
Abdul Salis as Eugene Skinner
Tyler Labine as Briggs Lowry
David Ellison as Eddie Beagle
Augustin Legrand as L.T. Giroux
Keith McErlean as Vernon Toddman
Lex Shrapnel as Grant
Michael Jibson as Lyle Porter
Gunnar Winbergh as The Black Falcon
Ian Rose as Wolfert
Daniel Rigby as Ives
Kyle Hensher-Smith as Jacques
Directed by Tony Bill
“Flyboys” is a majestic tribute to the Hollywood war films of yesteryear without the baggage that comes along with recent Hollywood movies. If nothing else, it’s worth the price of admission for the amazing aerial dogfights alone.
In 1917, France was trying to fight off the invading German air invason, and a group of brave young Americans came to France to learn how to fly and help defend the country. They were named the Lafayette Escadrille, and Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), hotshot rancher from Texas, learned a lot about life, honor and bravery by fighting with the Escadrille.
It’s been a long time since there’s been a really good war drama, one that really made you feel like you were there in the moment. In that sense, “Flyboys,” the latest from mega-producer Dean Devlin (“Independence Day”), takes its blueprint from classic Hollywood war films, but uses enough modern computer and digital technology to make sure it doesn’t feel dated. It takes place during the often ignored WWI era before America entered the war, as hundreds of American volunteers went to France to become fighter pilots, many of them having never flown, let alone seen a plane.
The story is seen though the eyes of rebellious Texan rancher Blaine Rawlings, who goes to France to prevent being arrested after his latest drunken brawl, while at the same time, others from different walks of life are going to France for their own reasons. Many of them might seem like typical war movie stereotypes, but they’re all based on real members of the Lafayette Escadrille or an amalgam of two or more of the brave pilots. Once they arrive in France, they’re trained to fly the latest airplanes while being razzed by the veteran pilots who have been fighting in the air for months. The toughest of them is the squad’s brooding ace, Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson), who has more kills than the other pilots combined, but who has also lost most of his friends to the war.
Despite his warnings, the young guns have no idea what’s in store for them until their first air encounter with the far more experienced Germans, as the focus shifts to the serious nature of their mission, which they learn quickly when a young pilot is mowed down on the ground by a German flying a daunting black plane. These stunning air battles, equal in excitement and effects work to anything in Devlin’s previous movies, make you feel as if you’re in the thick of the action with amazing aerial maneuvers and realistic firefights that raise the adrenaline every time the pilots hit the runway.
In between the air battles, Rawlings has an awkward relationship with a local French girl named Lucienne, made more difficult by the language barrier and her reticence to date pilots due to their short lifespans. It’s the type of wartime romance that brings a familiarity to “Flyboys” like something from a classic Hollywood war drama, but it also makes the drama of war seem more real when Rawlings leaves his squad to rescue Lucienne. You have to give credit to director Tony Bill for making these emotional and dramatic moments as riveting as the action scenes.
The movie is far from perfect though, the biggest complaint being that the movie is way too long and spends too much time trying to create story arcs for every single minor character, none of whom are nearly as interesting as Rawlings or Cassidy. Some of these conflicts are a bit obvious like the one between the squad’s only black pilot Skinner and the spoiled rich New Yorker whose family still has black servants. This situation is resolved pretty much as you might expect, but the film never gets too mired in this exposition before they’re all back in the air on the squad’s next mission and the amazing dogfights begin anew.
James Franco has made quite a career for himself with his sullen James Dean impression, but for once, it actually works, because he plays down Blaine’s cockiness to make him more likable than previous roles. Likewise, Martin Henderson does a good job brooding and making his character seem three-dimensional, and it would have been nice to have more scenes between their characters rather than spending so much time focusing on the other characters.
Jennifer Decker is a joy as Franco’s love interest, making the romance scenes enjoyable, even if they’re culled directly from a Screenwriting 101 handbook. Abdul Sallis and Tyler Labine also give strong performances compared to Jean Reno, who plays the role of the squad’s captain straight and stiff, and David Ellison, an actual trained acrobatic pilot, whose acting isn’t nearly as impressive at making his character Eddie Beagle very believable.
Ultimately, there aren’t many happy endings when it comes to war, and “Flyboys” avoids the formulaic nature of most Hollywood war movies by never sugarcoating things even when resolving its more predictable subplots.
The Bottom Line:
Anyone who loves old war movies, particularly those involving air battles, will be amazed by the craft that went into making this WWI epic, not only the amazing aerial dogfights, but also the quality storytelling. Though it’s a bit long by 15 to 20 minutes with too many separate story arcs, the tale of the Lafayette Escadrille and their wartime exploits is a riveting story that’s given a worthy treatment.