By Shawn McKenzie 09/23/2006
In 1916, America had not yet officially entered the First World War, so some Americans decided to get into the war anyway. Their method of fighting would be flying in planes…a vehicle that had only been recently invented. Several young men came to France’s Lafayette Escadrille for various reasons (not all of them did it out of patriotism.) Blaine Rawlings (James Franco) was a rancher from Aberdeen, Texas, whose family ranch was recently foreclosed upon. He attacks the banker who foreclosed on him, and he is warned by Sheriff Detweiller (Mac McDonald) to get out of town. A newsreel about the fighter pilots inspires him, so he heads off to France. Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine) is a rich kid who joins the cause to impress his father (Tim Pigott-Smith) possibly. William Jensen (Philip Winchester) is the son of a Cavalry officer (Todd Boyce), so he feels obligated. Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis) is a black American expatriate who works as a boxer in France. He wants to join the cause because he likes that the French people don’t judge him by the color of his skin, and he wants to pay the country back for their kindness. Eddie Beagle (David Ellison) is a goofball who can’t shoot his weapon straight (he blames it on the weaponry being faulty.) Lyle Porter (Michael Jibson) is the deeply religious one of the squad. Their leader, Captain Georges Thenault (Jean Reno) lets them know that the life expectancy of pilots is just three to six weeks, so making friends is almost pointless. Their squadron leader Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson), a veteran at age 28 with over 20 kills under his belt, has his own reasons for fighting what he considers a losing war. He just wants revenge over all of the German pilots who killed his friends. He has only one target left…a German pilot known as the Black Falcon (Gunnar Winbergh.) His only friend at the moment is a lion named Whiskey (Shaka is the lion’s real name)…the squad’s mascot. They begin their training, but they run into obstacles both within and out of their squad. Lowry doesn’t want to be roommates with Skinner, because he says it would be like rooming “with the help” (Skinner ends up rooming with Rawlings.) When the men go into the local bar, they are chased out by the more experienced pilots, led by a guy named Grant (Lex Shrapnel), who doesn’t want them coming into the bar again until they have some kills under their belt. In their first mission, Toddman (Keith McErlean), Nunn (Pip Pickering), and Dewitt (Barry McGee)…three other pilot characters you never get to know about…are killed, which brings the surviving pilots down. Rawlings finds a distraction though, when he and Eddie accidentally crash-land near a local brothel (both had forgotten to gas the plane up before taking off.) Rawlings is cared for by a French girl named Lucienne (Jennifer Decker) who he thinks is one of the prostitutes at first, but later finds out from Clarise (Kate Robbins), the brothel’s Madame, that she only stepped in the to get away from some German soldiers. Lucienne actually lives nearby, and she takes care of her two nephews…Ives (Daniel Rigby) and Jacques (Kyle Hensher-Smith)…and niece Marie (twins Lauren and Hayley Downing.) The kids’ father was Lucienne’s brother, but unfortunately, he and his wife had been killed in the war, so they are now orphaned. Rawlings and Lucienne start falling in love…even though she can’t speak English very well (you would think that he would try just as hard to learn to speak French, since he is in France…but whatever.) As they go on more missions, they all begin to grow up and mature…but as Thenault mentioned, some don’t end up making it back alive.
The press materials for Flyboys went on and on about how this was the first movie in decades that covered the fighter pilots of World War I (since WWII had been already covered extensively.) My first thought was Snoopy and his dogfight with the Red Baron on his Sopwith Camel (a.k.a. his doghouse.) Since that was the only image I had of WWI fighter pilots in the world of entertainment, I realized that the press materials were right. This movie had to be made!
Aside from impressive fight plane action, it was just okay story-wise. The acting was decent. Franco did a good job leading the movie, but I can’t shake the fact that he always looks like James Dean to me (for those who don’t know, he won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Emmy playing the title character in the 2001 TNT TV movie “James Dean.”) Aside from his part as Harry Osborn in the two Spider-Man movies, he really hasn’t had a hit movie yet, so I hope he eventually be an acting commodity in a good movie that doesn’t involve a web-slinger someday. French actress Decker, making her American acting debut (she had a bit part in the 1994 movie Cobb as a waitress, but I don’t think that she had any lines), had chemistry with Franco, but I wonder if she really can’t speak English well. That might be a liability later on. Reno’s part was short, but he played it with some humor that lent to the entertainment factor. The rest of the cast seemed like a who’s who of “I’ve seen that guy before” actors. I won’t go through all of them, but the ones that stood out were Labine and Henderson. For a while, I thought I had seen Labine in a comedy playing a bully or something…then I realized that he was the conspiracy nut on ABC’s canceled “Invasion.” Henderson was the baby daddy of Naomi Watt’s son in 2002’s The Ring. As much as I liked this film, I don’t think that it will replace those gigs as their biggest acting success to date.
The CGI was impressive, but it reminded me of something while I watched it. It wasn’t until later that I realized that the biplanes in the movie were similar to the X-Wings in 1977’s Star Wars IV: A New Hope. Thinking back even more…the zeppelin was similar to Star Wars’ Star Destroyer. If for no other reason, I would see it for the dogfight action.
There may have not been many WWI fighter plane movies in the last 30+ years, but I don’t think that director Tony Bill’s Flyboys is going to start a trend. I did get a craving to go to the store and buy a Red Baron frozen pizza though (I got the 4-meat pizza.) Yum!
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