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Flyboys **½

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

Franco plays a strong, not-so-silent ace
in director Tony Bill's Flyboys.

(Courtesy of San Francisco Examiner)

Starring: James Franco, Martin Henderson, Abdul Salis, David Ellison, Philip Winchester, Tyler Labine, Jean Reno. Rated PG-13.

Hollywood has long been fascinated by World War II and Vietnam, but the Great War, as it was known, has rarely been subjected to the same cinematic scrutiny, perhaps because the roots of that conflict have been obscured over time, and its moral imperatives now seem less compelling. America's mid-century triumph over fascism, like its ill-conceived attempt to defend the Vietnamese from themselves, is still fresh in our collective consciousness. Meanwhile, memories of World War I have faded with the passage of each generation.

Flyboys seeks to revive those memories, recalling a time before freedom fries when French and American soldiers fought side-by-side against the forces of German imperialism. It’s inspired by a true story, of course, faithfully recreating dramatic air battles (with a dash of Top Gun-style stunt-work) and loosely basing its ragtag heroes on real American fighter pilots. It is also riddled with clichés and trite resolutions, and though the action is fast, furious and thrilling, it’s hard to overlook a plot so rife with assembly-line developments.

The “Flyboys” – American members of the Lafayette Escadrille airborne unit – are an affable bunch, led by the ruggedly handsome Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), a cowboy type who’s eager to make a name for himself as a daredevil ace. Naturally, he’s flanked by a gang of misfits: Beagle (David Ellison), a curiously incompetent pilot with a shady past; Jensen (Philip Winchester), an army legacy racked with self-doubt; Briggs (Tyler Labine), a portly rich kid who lacks direction; and Skinner (Abdul Salis), a black prizefighter who has taken refuge in France to escape racial intolerance at home.

After some initial clashing – Briggs, for instance, can’t stomach the notion of rooming with Skinner, because it would be like “sleeping with the servants” – they become fast friends, making their near-daily casualties that much harder to accept. No surprise there, nor is it much of a surprise when Rawlings falls for a lovely mademoiselle (Jennifer Decker) and throws himself into a linguistically challenged courtship. From there, the movie settles into a pattern of dazzling dogfights separated by romantic interludes that slow the pace back down to a crawl.

That’s a shame, because Flyboys almost works, despite the clunky dialogue and slick, unimaginative storytelling. The film is decidedly old-fashioned, lacking the cynical wit and hellish intensity of grittier war fare like Full Metal Jacket and Saving Private
, but the aerial combat is genuinely exhilarating, and Franco is capable enough as a leading man to breathe life into stale material. Flyboys is weighed down by too much dramatic artifice, too many moments that ring false and too many loose ends tied up neatly and unconvincingly. Yet Franco manages to get it off the ground and keep it there, if just barely skimming the treetops.

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