by Mel Valentin
Before the United States entered World War I on the side of the French and the British, a group of Americans joined up on the Allied side, became fighter pilots under the French command, and called themselves Lafayette Escadrille. The ads for "Flyboys" claims it’s “inspired by a true story.” Notice the phrasing. “Inspired by” is one step below “based on” and one step above “completely made up.” In other words, moviegoers expected a history lesson about the Lafayette Escadrille will do better to check out a documentary or online reading to find the “real” facts behind the squadron. Everyone else can sit back and enjoy a ridiculously cheesy, but nonetheless incredibly entertaining, popcorn flick. As directed by Tony Bill ("Five Corners," "Six Weeks," "My Bodyguard"), "Flyboys" has everything you could possibly want from a popcorn flick, lots of action, most of it airborne, hissable villains, and a saccharine, chaste romance between a dashing hero and a young Frenchwoman in distress.Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), a young Texan newly homeless after losing the family ranch, sits in a darkly lit movie theater as he watches newsreel footage about the distant war in Europe. With nothing to lose and a bench warrant to his name, Rawlings heads east to France. William Jensen (Philip Winchester), leaves his parents and girlfriend, promises to return a hero, and jumps on a train. Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine) reluctantly leaves New York City, a failure in his wealthy father’s eyes. Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), an African-American pugilist living in France, foregoes his boxing career to join up with the French. Eddie Beagle (David Ellison), an American from Wisconsin, is also eager to join the Lafayette Escadrille.
"A guilty pleasure if there ever was one..."
In France, the new pilots first have to learn to fly under Captain Thenault’s (Jean Reno) careful, cautious supervision. Thenault has only two months to get the new arrivals trained and ready for combat against the Germans. The senior pilot on staff, Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson), has lost too many friends to be anything but cold and distant toward the new arrivals, especially Rawlings, who uncomfortably reminds Cassidy of his own youthful naïveté and idealism. As Rawlings and the others take up their training in earnest, a training mishap leaves Rawlings in a French bordello where he meets Lucienne (Jennifer Decker), a beautiful Frenchwoman who doesn’t speak English. That doesn’t stop Rawlings from finding Lucienne again in between training runs. He does, but he has to overcome first the language barrier then Lucienne’s fears and anxieties about losing him. In the skies, Rawlings and the other pilots have to contend with the Black Falcon (Gunnar Winbergh), the Germans’ best, most ruthless pilot.
Is Franco the "new" Tom Cruise? Maybe, maybe not. With leading roles in Annapolis and Flyboys, Franco seems to be cornering the market on Cruise-like roles. Franco may not have Cruise's star power, but Cruise's star has been on the wane for the better part of a year (note to Cruise: please keep your opinions to yourself). Plus, Cruise has crossed the 40-something threshold. In other words, he's getting old, so someone new has to step into the arrogant-something-to-prove character that also happens to be the best of the best (but he has to learn to trust, respect, and work with others). That pretty much describes the Rawlings character in Flyboys, except Rawlings’ character arc is relatively flat (he has few doubts about himself), leaving him to fly combat missions, lose more friends, and eventually take on the Black Falcon in aerial combat one last time.
Franco’s career prospects aside, the real reason moviegoers will flock to Flyboys (or not, as the case may be) can be summed up in two words: aerial dogfights. And yes, they're suitably spectacular, minus the occasionally dodgy effect or two. Not only does the Lafayette Escadrille have to take on experienced German pilots, they have to take out a zeppelin on its way to Paris to drop some bombs. Flyboys doesn’t get to the zeppelin scene until the end, though. Before that, the Lafayette Escadrille has to overcome first day jitters, the loss of the first pilot, the nervous breakdown of another pilot, more losses, and eventually, the Black Falcon and his squadron. If aerial dogfights aren't enough, we get one battlefield in no-man's-land, plus an airplane attack on French refugees. Jensen refers to the Lafayette Escadrille as "air knights," but the better analogy is the cavalry that rushes in to save the day at the end of programmatic westerns.
Flyboys has one or two narrative strategies of interest. To make sure we don't develop any sympathy toward the Germans, they aren't given any speaking lines. In fact, we rarely see the faces of the German pilots (the easier to applaud their defeat), with two exceptions, one German aviator, Wolfert (Ian Rose), who acts with honor and another, the Black Falcon, who most definitely doesn't (he fires on a downed aviator). Pity that the pilot of the Black Falcon wasn't given a mustache to twirl (yes, Flyboys is that simplistic. Still, the French have had a hard time of it over the last five years, so seeing a film where they aren't the villains is a welcome breath of fresh air (they still need American help to succeed though). Then, of course, we get a beautiful French heroine who's lost her brother and has now inherited his three lovable moppets. What's not to love about the French? If Flyboys is any indication (it's not really), there's plenty to love.As for historical accuracy, a Lafayette Escadrille did, in fact, exist, it was made up of American-born fighter pilots, and the Lafayette Escadrille indeed included an African-American pilot, Eugene Bullard. "Flyboys" includes several scenes dealing with the casual racism Skinner experiences from the other pilots, but his skills as an aviator quickly (perhaps too quickly) make him an invaluable member of the squadron. There's at least one dialogue-related slip-up. In a speech, Skinner refers to himself as "black," a term that wasn't used in the early 20th-century. Either way, the principal reason Skinner joins the French was apparently true of Bullard too: the French treat Skinner with the respect and dignity he deserves.
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originally posted: 10/01/06 22:23:04