It’s been nearly a half century since the last bad Hollywood movie about the Lafayette Escadrille, the squadron of Americans that joined the infant French air force during World War I; it was director William Wellman’s final film, a 1958 effort titled after the squad, and starred Tab Hunter. So perhaps it’s time for another. “Flyboys,” flaccidly directed by Tony Bill, is like a cinematic time warp, but the time it takes you back to is not so much 1917, the year in which it’s supposedly set, but the forties and fifties: it’s a cornucopia of cliches from movies of that era about military rebels who become heroes, about romance in the midst of war, about initially hostile recruits who develop bonds of camaraderie by watching one another’s backs, even when (as here) it’s while they’re in the air. And about the gruff commanders who learn to respect their troublesome charges and the hardened veteran who does likewise. Though ostensibly based on a true story, it comes across as resolutely false.
The central character is Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), a lanky Texan who decides to join the squadron after he loses the family farm and is given a half-hour to get out of town when he assaults the banker responsible for the foreclosure. Rawlings is a mixture of Gary Cooper and James Dean (the later of whom Franco once played): a straight-shooter and crack shot, but roguish and undisciplined, too. He becomes the de facto leader of the bunch of caricature misfits that make up the rookies in the Lafayette Escadrille: the rich boy (Tyler Labine), just kicked out of Harvard, who’s sent by his father to become a man; the black man (Abdul Salis) searching to pay back France for the welcome it showed him when his native land didn’t; the hymn-singing Christian (Michael Jibson); the suspicious fellow who can never seem to shoot down an enemy plane (David Ellison); the gung-ho type (Philip Winchester) who cracks up after a close call. And as if that weren’t enough stereotypes, the script offers us a cynical American veteran (Martin Henderson) whose idealism has been broken by the deaths of his pilot friends and the conviction that the Great War will solve nothing–and who keeps a lion as the quad mascot (allowing for reaction shots of the big cat rather than the customary ones of some dog–the movie obviously thinks on a large scale)–as well as a French captain (Jean Reno) who’s so well disposed to the courageous Americans that he proves quite willing to let the rules slide when necessary.
In the course of “Flyboys,” Rawlings really shows his mettle. He not only becomes the premier flyer in his group, but rescues a comrade after the latter’s plan crashes in the no-man’s zone between the opposing trenches, flies behind enemy lines to save a French girl (Jennifer Decker) he’s fallen in love with (along with her adorable nephews and niece, all of them orphans) from a horde of Germans who have invaded their farm, and eventually takes on the enemy ace, the so-called Black Falcon (Gunnar Winbergh), in a one-on-one dogfight. (The Falcon, whom we see–along with other German pilots–as they attack, is a villainous figure practically out of silent movies. He flies a plane painted black, no less, and in one scene he’s shown machine-gunning an American who’s landed his plane safely after it was damaged. The only thing missing is a shot of him twirling his moustache, Snidely Whiplash style, as he fires.) It’s an impossible role, and Falco, who’s proven a handsome cipher as Harry Osborne in the Spider-Man movies, the male half of the couple in “Tristan & Isolde” and the lower-class plebe in “Annapolis,” tries to aw and shucks his way through it, but without ever demonstrating the charisma it would take to make the fellow remotely plausible, or even very likable. Henderson does the world-weary loner shtick well enough, and Reno tosses a few amiable glances and feints our way, but both have trouble wrestling with the canned material. As for the other members of the squad, they’re all played by young unknowns who are likely to remain in that unhappy position.
On the technical level, “Flyboys” is a would-be epic on a limited budget. The crowd scenes are sadly modest, and there’s so much CGI on display, not only in the numerous air-conflict scenes but on the ground as well, that you’d sometimes swear you were watching an animated fantasy. The dogfight sequences are busy and explosion-filled, but they’re clearly more plastic models and computer trickery than actual aircraft; and they’re further enfeebled by all the hokey heroics they’re required to bear. For more genuine aerial action you still have to go back to “The Blue Max” (1966), though it was no dramatic masterpiece either. And Trevor Rabin should certainly have consulted Jerry Goldsmith’s memorable score for that picture to learn that you can use something other than the usual rah-rah note-spinning to buttress this sort of story.
The cliche-ridden histrionics on display in “Flyboys” were already old-fashioned when Wellman made “Lafayette Escadrille” nearly fifty years ago. Now they seem positively moldy, and all the CGI dexterity in the world can’t enliven them. This movie crashes and burns, but at 139 minutes not quite fast enough.