"Flyboys" will make a good double feature with "The Guardian," which opens next week. Both are noble, well-intentioned military stories, and both are at least 30 minutes longer than they should be. Honest attempts to inspire and enlighten us are appreciated, but they don't insulate you from wearing out your welcome. We like church OK, too, but we get antsy when the sermon drags on too long.
With based-on-a-true-story earnestness, "Flyboys" covers the brave young Americans who, in the days prior to the United States' official entry into World War I, volunteered for France's Lafayette Escadrille to become WW I flying aces (yes, just like Snoopy). The six lads in the squad depicted in the film come from different backgrounds, with some trying to escape their dead-end lives while at least one has been forced into service by his father. What they have in common is a) they are young and eager and b) they are not French yet have no problem fighting for France.
The film presents as its protagonist Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), a ne'er-do-well Southern boy who's only too happy to get out of his podunk town and shoot down some Jerrys. Rawlings is cocky at the outset, leaving the film with two choices: Show him maturing and becoming more humble over the course of the story, or let him stay arrogant and try to pass that off as a positive character trait. The movie chooses the latter. Rawlings defies authority routinely, but always in ways that save the day. He butts into other pilots' lives, but only to help them solve their problems. I was supposed to find him courageous, but I kept wanting to smack him.
Anyway, Rawlings' fellow flyboys include a pompous rich kid (Tyler Labine), a black American who's been living in Paris (Abdul Salis), and, um, three others, all white, all Aryan-looking, all vaguely handsome. The three-man screenplay doesn't even give them personality TYPES, let alone distinct personalities.
The group is trained by a patient French commander named Thenault (Jean Reno) and mentored, somewhat grudgingly, by Cassidy (Martin Henderson), an enigmatic pilot with dozens of kills to his credit. Cassidy won't talk about his personal life, nor about much of anything else. After a day of flying missions against the Germans, he spends his evenings in a soldiers-only saloon, washing his cares away.
We see the new recruits being trained (in amusingly resourceful low-tech ways, this being before computer simulations and the like) and eventually flying missions. These dogfights are remarkably well-filmed by director Tony Bill (mostly a TV guy) and cinematographer Henry Braham. I assume most of it was done with computer trickery, but you'd be hard-pressed to identify which elements are real and which aren't, so seamlessly is everything assembled. During those flying sequences, in which our callow heroes pursue Germans and try to avoid being shot down themselves, the film feels like a good old-fashioned war picture. Indeed, some have already compared it to Howard Hughes' "Hell's Angels," from 1930 (the making of which was depicted in 2004's "The Aviator").
Something else "Flyboys" has in common with "The Guardian": a tacked-on romantic subplot. Here, it's Rawlings falling for a provincial French girl (Jennifer Decker). The language barrier provides some sweetly amusing moments, and in fact the film never feels more genuine than when Rawlings and Lucienne are mooning over each other. The thing is, the romance doesn't feel necessary to the film, an observation that makes me realize the entire FILM doesn't feel necessary to the film. The story is more a series of events than an actual plot, with no throughline to keep us interested. It could end after any of the aerial dogfights and be as "over" as it is when it's actually finished. It means well, and it's nice enough, but goodness it's too long and rambling.