Here we go again. It's yet another movie about a relatively unknown chapter in history brought to the screen in the form of a cliché-fest. I keep hoping filmmakers will learn the error of their ways, just like I keep doubting they will.
The United States has yet to enter World War I, but several of America's sons have enlisted in the Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of pilots aiding the French and English in their struggle against the German war machine. Heading up the newest batch of volunteers is Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), a Texas cowpoke who fled the States after punching out the banker who foreclosed on his family's ranch. He is joined by rich kid Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine), African-American boxer Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), Midwesterner William Jensen (Philip Winchester), and perpetual screw-up Eddie Beagle (David Ellison). While awaiting his first sortie against the enemy, Rawlings meets and falls for Lucienne (Jennifer Decker), a local girl who is raising her late brother's three children. But duty eventually calls, and the boys finally take to the skies, battling the superior firepower and skills of the German pilots. Needless to say, not all of them will be coming back.
When it came time to write this, I was almost tempted to cut and paste my recent review of Pearl Harbor and simply change the names of the characters and actors. It would almost work, as Flyboys shares many of the same problems as Michael Bay's misfire. Despite producer Dean Devlin's claims that this movie was independently financed in order to avoid any interference from studio brass, Flyboys plays just like your standard Hollywood wannabe-epic. The movie isn't really bad, it's just old-hat. The characters are all pretty much stereotypes, the story follows a well-worn path, and a sappy, nonsensical romance is shoehorned into the plot, so yet again we end up with a movie that completely squanders its potential by sticking to conventionality like gum to the sole of a shoe. You want a hero who gets in trouble while just trying to protect his family's way of life? Check. You want an older pilot with a mysterious past who is haunted by the deaths of his friends? Check. (This one is played by Martin Henderson.) You want a no-nonsense but loving commanding officer? Check. (This one is played by the great Jean Reno.) You want a bigot who eventually realizes what a fool he's been and makes amends with the man he's wronged? Check. You want a daring rescue in the middle of a raging battle? Check. You want everyone to get a shot at redemption by movie's end? Check. You want the whole thing bogged down by a superfluous romantic subplot? Check. You want a city threatened by lava flows? That you won't find here, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out the writers had tried to work it in.
As I've mentioned several times before, and probably will again very soon, the true story of men and events that inspired this movie would have made for a far more compelling tale than the fictionalized shenanigans that ended up on the screen. Given what is revealed in this disc's supplements, the men who made up the Lafayette Escadrille were fare more colorful and complex than their cinematic counterparts, and their experiences didn't need to be embellished. For example, Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, who traveled the Pacific and authored the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy of novels, were members of the squadron before embarking on their literary careers. Their post-war lives are a hell of a lot more interesting than the trite codas the writers provide for these characters.
I have to admit that the aerial sequences do carry a charge. It's been many a year since we've seen World War I dogfights on the big screen, and while these don't rank as high as those in Hell's Angels or The Blue Max, they're still pulled off with a considerable amount of skill. Director Tony Bill (whose directorial debut, 1980's My Bodyguard, remains his best effort behind the camera), a pilot himself, brings just the right amount of realism to these sequences, which makes some of the more improbable (albeit still possible) bits a little easier to swallow. The dogfights here don't seem to constantly defy the laws of physics, and we actually get a sense of just how fragile these flying machines were (remember, the Wright Brothers' historic flight had occurred a little more than a decade before the events depicted in the movie). All of that being said, some of the green screen work in these scenes is a bit shoddy, and the miniature buildings and aircraft in the climatic bombing run look like they were constructed out of Lincoln Logs, leading me to believe that most of the budget went into creating the CG planes, which look damn good.
One last thing: Exactly where the hell did the gunner on that zeppelin think he was going?
With the exception of one brief bit captured with a digital camcorder, Flyboys was shot with Panavision Genesis HD cameras, the same cameras used on Superman Returns. Fortunately, Flyboys doesn't share the same scrubbed, flat, sterile look as Supes' latest adventure. With a visual scheme that wavers between sepia tones, cold blues, and clear, pastel-filled, vivid horizons, Flyboys exhibits a consistent film-like appearance. The 2.35:1 transfer (encoded with MPEG 2 at 24Mbps and slapped onto a dual-layer disc) looks excellent, with beautiful colors, superb detail, and fantastic depth. My only complaint--and it's a very small one--is with one of the darker scenes, which momentarily becomes flat and murky.
The lossless DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is fine overall, but it's also a little frustrating. It's very active and immersive during the action sequences, but has a habit of collapsing into the front channels when the characters are on the ground; change is a bit jarring, and not in a good way. Dialogue, even that shouted between aircraft, is always clear and intelligible, and Trevor Rabin's score sounds very good. As I mentioned, the track sounds incredible when the entire soundstage is engaged, with excellent integration of the surrounds and some very deep bass (all those thrumming engines sound very nice). Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also included, as are English and Spanish subtitles.
The commentary by producer Dean Devlin and director Tony Bill focuses primarily on the technical aspects of the shoot (including the use of motion capture on the planes, which is a first), although on occasion they do delve into story, character, and historical background. It's not a fantastic track, but it is lively and fairly interesting.
A Flyboys Aerial Guide Track (read: trivia track) is also included. It focuses exclusively on the movie's background, including facts about the inspiration for the characters, the history of the squadron, the aircraft, etc., but there's not a lot of information included. Long stretches of the movie go by with no pop-up text balloons in sight. Count this as a missed opportunity.
The following featurettes are viewable separately or as one long doc:
Real Heroes: The Lafayette Escadrille (27 minutes) takes a too-brief look at the men who served in the squadron, including those who served as inspiration for the characters in the movie. This includes interviews with the filmmakers, historical experts, and even the daughter of one of the pilots.
The Diary of a Miniature Stunt Pilot (8 minutes) is a behind-the-scenes peek into the creation of some of the movie's aerial pyrotechnic effects. This is hosted by the diminutive flying ace who "performed" the stunts.
Whiskey and Soda: The Lion Mascots (5 minutes) covers the story of the squadron's mascots, a pair of lions purchased by several of the pilots during a drunken weekend.
The Real Planes of Flyboys (9 minutes) offers information on the various aircraft featured in the movie.
Taking Flight: The Making of Aerial Battle Sequences (10 minutes) focuses, as can be expected, on the creation of the dogfights. Much of the material centers on the bomber attack sequence, with a look at the storyboards, pre-viz, and green screen components of the shoot.
The Flyboys Ride with the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy Blue Angels (4 minutes) is nothing more than footage of actors David Ellison and James Franco hitching a ride with the famous aerial acrobatics squads. (I could be wrong, but I think Franco flips the bird against the canopy during the inverted portion of his flight.)
You also get six deleted scenes (17 minutes total). As Devlin points out in the commentary, all of which were cut for time. Five of these were wisely excised (one of them is so unintentionally funny it could have single-handedly killed the movie, and the bit with Tchéky Karyo and the lion is almost unbearably awful), but I think the conversation between Franco and Henderson in the brothel would have added a bit of depth to the proceedings.
Rounding things out is the movie's theatrical trailer.
Flyboys is worth seeing for the aerial sequences alone. Feel free to skip everything else. Rent it.