Chuck Yeager once called air to air combat the last truly glamourous form of warfare. Which is true, and this partially explains why movies about fighter pilots and fighter combat are an old Hollywood staple. Wings, made in 1927, and 1930's Dawn Patrol, are considered enduring classics. More recently, Top Gun helped propel Tom Cruise to stardom and spurred an increase in military recruiting.
But Hollywood hasnít tackled the subject of World War I fighter combat since The Blue Max in 1966. Until now. Flyboys, directed by Tony Bill, tells the story of the Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of American pilots who volunteered to fly and fight for France in the days before America entered World War I. Bill combines the very latest in computer effects with actual aerial footage to put the audience in the middle of World War I aerial combat. At times the results are visually arresting. But despite the state of the art effects, Flyboys is a pretty mixed bag.
The movie begins in 1916 with Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), a young rancher who has just beaten up the banker who foreclosed on the family ranch. The sheriff, rather than arresting him, warns him to get out of town, so for Rawlings itís off to France in the hope of becoming a fighter pilot. Bill quickly introduces us to a set of stereotypical characters who have also chosen to join the Escadrille. These include Lowery, the spoiled rich kid (Tyler Labine), Beagle, the daredevil with a shady past (David Ellison), and Porter (Michael Jibson), whose religious fervor leads him to sing ďOnward Christian SoldiersĒ while dogfighting. There is also Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), a black boxer living in France who signs up to defend his adopted country out of a sense or patriotism. Skinner is presumably based on Eugene Bullard, who became the first black fighter pilot.
As a director, Tony Bill has mostly worked in television, and he seems to have chosen these actors as if he were casting for a prime time teenage soap opera. All of them are pretty in a Tiger Beat magazine sort of way, but none of them come across as having the right stuff to be warriors. It does not help that Franco mostly pouts his way through the role. The miscasting of most of the roles is especially glaring when our heroes walk into a bar for fighter pilots. The supporting actors, by contrast, all look the part, and several seem to have stepped out of some old period photograph. In these surroundings, and among these men, Franco and company come across as a glaring anachronism.
Two of the supporting cast turn in very strong performances. Jean Reno is excellent as Captain Thenault, the Escadrilleís commanding officer. Reno, a deeply talented, charismatic and always watchable actor, has played tough guys many times. When he lectures the trainee pilots on combat tactics, you half expect him to change topic and start lecturing these man children on how to play a hardass. He also looks good in a period uniform. Martin Henderson plays Cassidy, a veteran pilot with long string of kills to his credit. Hendersonís performance is fascinating and pitch perfect. He and Reno do much to rescue the Earthbound parts of this movie from being unwatchable.
Of course anyone going to see Flyboys is going for the aerial sequences, and here Bill does not disappoint. Flyboys has the best dogfighting since Luke Skywalker strapped himself into that X-Wing. Bill used a complex procedure to film this movie in which instruments placed aboard real aircraft were use to gather flight data so that the computer generated aircraft would maneuver like real planes. The parts of the dogfighting that are CGI are indistinguishable from the real thing. An attack on a German Zeppelin is especially thrilling, and provides a real payoff for scenes on the ground that sometimes donít go anywhere, or just drag on too long. Bill uses several different missions including bombing, dogfighting, and the aforementioned Zeppelin to keep his air to air combat from becoming repetitive.
That having been said, there are some glaring historical errors. Not surprisingly, all the German fighters in this movie are Fokker dr1s, which, being triplanes, are easy for the audience to distinguish as being the bad guys. Unfortunately, Bill has to take things a step further and make them all bright red. The Red Baron used that color scheme, but it was not universal. Of course the movie needs a villain, and that villain must fly a distinctive looking plane. So Blake Evansí story gives us the dreaded Black Falcon, who, in proper villainous style flies an all black Fokker. To underscore his villainy, the Falcon strafes a shot down pilot on the ground.
Flyboys really hasnít got a central plot, just a series of incidents and subplots, some of which might have been trimmed for length. Thereís the obligatory romantic subplot, which is helped by the fact that the story has Franco falling in love with a French woman (Jennifer Decker) who speaks little English. None of the characters in this movie is ever developed very much, so the language barrier gets the writers out of having to actually develop this plot line, or Deckerís character. Instead Decker functions as bit of set decoration, until Franco has a chance to rescue her. After that, she is quickly bundled off. The parts of this movie that take place on the ground mostly feel like filler between dogfights, and Flyboys might have been better off with a bit less filler.
At the end of the day, Flyboys canít be taken too seriously, but itís still worth going to see. If it isnít always good history, at least itís good fun, and its heart is in the right place. Because Chuck Yeager was right. It really is the last truly glamorous form of war. And when the planes and the dogfighting take center stage, Flyboys make it look pretty damn cool.