September 28, 2006

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Flyboys (PG-13)
Eager beaver American soldiers beat Wilson and the rest of the country to World War I by joining the Lafayette Escadrille of the French air corps and becoming some of the first fighter pilots in Flyboys, a movie that is at its best when it’s soaring through the air.

At its best because World War I airplanes were apparently made of papier maché and repaired with glue sticks and tissues. As depicted in the movie, these planes do loop-de-loops, can nose dive to chase enemies and fall apart from a couple of bullets to the wing. And unlike your modern war planes, which explode in movies, the World War I planes frequently fall to the ground sans pilot, who gets to fall to the ground all on his own in airspace near the plane. It’s horrifying but also makes for some exciting footage of scrappy fights that are as close to hand-to-hand combat as you can get when you are in constant danger of losing a simultaneous war with gravity. Even if it is all green-screened.

My guess is that these dogfights make up about 45 minutes of the film, all put together. Sadly, the entire movie is two hours and 19 minutes. That’s a lot of time when Flyboys isn’t doing what it does best.

So what does this movie do for the non-flight-related hour and 30-some minutes?

Why, character development, of course. There’s Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine), a rich Harvard dropout whose dad wants him to join the air corps to man up. There’s William Jensen (Philip Winchester), an over-eager farm boy from the Midwest trying to live up to a family legacy of wartime heroism. There’s Eddie Beagle (David Ellison), a skittery kid who can’t seem to shoot straight. There’s Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), an African American boxer who moved to France because the French were less squirrely about race. There’s Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson), the embittered veteran of the air war, and there’s the escadrille’s commander, Capt. Thenault (Jean Reno).

And then there’s our hero, Blaine Rawlings (James Franco). He’s a ranch boy from Texas whose family’s farm is auctioned out from under him. After picking a fight with the man from the bank, Rawlings is advised by the local sheriff to skip town. He heads to war ’cause why not and immediately decides he’s going to be his squadron’s leader. Much posturing follows, with Rawlings horrified by the easy-come-easy-go-ness of pilots (most of them die) and Cassidy trying to tell him to buck up and keep on flying.

Because even the character development of half a dozen people doesn’t fill that much time, the movie also throws in one of the more pointless love stories in the history of war films — Rawlings’ courtship of Lucienne (Jennifer Decker), a French girl who is maybe a prostitute and maybe a farmer trying to raise her dead brother’s children. He doesn’t speak French and she doesn’t speak English so it takes a while to untangle things.

The Germans make a periodic appearance, mostly as dozens of indistinguishable red biplanes and one Darth Vader-like, iron-cross-covered tri-plane. Frankly, these nameless pawns and their almost as nameless leader (he’s called “the Black Falcon,” though at first I thought the Americans called him “Baron Von Falcon,” which is a much better villain name) are some of the better-developed characters in the film. They have motivation (killing the Allied pilots) and personalities (red) and internal conflicts (the red planes are efficient killers but honorable soldiers whereas Baron Von Falcon is just a jerk).

Perhaps had the Allied soldiers appeared only as planes they would have made for better characters too. As it is, we have to learn their names and their backstories (a useless exercise since most of them die but do so mid-air where they are just indistinguishable goggle-wearers in silver planes) and the effort of sitting through these scenes spoils much of the fun of watching the dogfights.

Maybe when the DVD comes out, we’ll get a livelier 80-minutes-long director’s cut. C-

— Amy Diaz


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