Watching Howard Hughes’ “Hells Angels” fleet of biplanes speed recklessly across the sky in the 2004 Hughes biopic “The Aviator,” I remembered thinking that there is a great movie waiting to be made about World War I pilots at the dawn of aviation. “Flyboys” is not that movie.
It is set in 1917 and features some impressive dogfight sequences, but surely there is a more engaging story to tell of the Americans who volunteered for France’s Lafayette Escadrille than the one in this lackluster movie. It is a telling sign that flying sequences are interspersed every twenty minutes or so, as if the screenwriters knew that audiences would get bored with bad dialogue and need some action to stay awake. For the action scenes to truly matter, however, we must have characters that we care about.
|“You can be my wingman anytime.”|
As is the case with so many films that are billed as “based on a true story,” “Flyboys” hopes to skate by on its fascinating subject matter alone. Almost as soon as it was invented, the airplane was modified for war. But the first planes were tinderboxes with open cockpits. Dangerous does not begin to describe the missions these pilots were sent on. Battling the superior German aircraft over enemy lines was more accurately suicidal. According to the movie, the average lifespan of a pilot was three to six weeks.
With this much drama already built in to the premise, it is a surprise that none of it translates into the movie. From its title to the juvenile way it treats its characters, “Flyboys” is clearly trying to reach a younger audience. “Flyboys” insults that audience by not allowing any of its characters to break out of the neat little boxes that have been supplied for them. Teenagers can recognize stale characterization just as easily as movie critics can.
Casting James Franco as Blaine Rawlings, the main protagonist, was a step in the right direction. He’s shown in TV’s short-lived “Freaks and Geeks” and the “Spider-Man” movies that he is a gifted character actor. Unfortunately, he is saddled with a dull love affair with a French girl that grinds the movie to a halt every time they are onscreen together. The script also forces Franco to fill in too many blanks as Rawlings, a rancher who leaves his family’s foreclosed home after seeing a newsreel of the fighter planes.
Here’s a quick list of the other well-worn molds they poured these characters out of. There’s the young idealist who comes from a family of military men, the religious nut who thinks God is on his side, the racist rich white kid trying to impress Daddy, the grizzled veteran who will eventually treat the young ones as equals, and the black man who will be discriminated against until he saves the racist’s life—at which point the racist will make an endearing gesture of goodwill towards him.
The usually reliable Jean Reno (“The Professional,” “The Da Vinci Code”) is reduced to a cutesy cliche as the Escadrille’s “firm but fair” Captain Thenault. In embarrassing scene after embarrassing scene, he plays concerned den mother or comic relief to the young men, alternating between the two whenever the movie’s tone switches—which it does a lot, and quite uncomfortably.
|This will go over like a lead zeppelin|
Most of the biplane dogfights are indeed impressive, even if some tend towards the unlikely. (A man running on top of a zeppelin as it explodes? That’s more “Matrix” than World War I.) The action puts you in the cockpit with an unprecedented pilot’s point-of-view. One often-used breathtaking shot comes from a plane at a higher altitude than the others, looking down at the winding patterns of all the planes. It gives one a feeling of the massive expanse of the battle right before the plane dives into the maelstrom for an attack.
It is a shame that the bravery of the real-life pilots is reduced to simplistic character traits and male bonding scenes. Alongside this, the obligatory love interest, the hunky leading man, and tragic death of an important pilot all make “Flyboys” like “Top Gun” for the biplane set. As 80s-angsty as it was, though, at least Cruise and company elicited some kind of emotional response. “Flyboys” ignores the real men of the squadron and turns them into familiar stereotypes for easy digestion.
An aside: The characters in “Flyboys” are mostly composite characters with different names than the real-life pilots. In a movie that is based on a true story, what do the “where are they now” titles actually mean if the men they are about never really existed?