No doubt launched into production as soon as people began oohing and aahing over the opening third of Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator”–the part that centered on the production of the WW I epic “Hell’s Angels” and featured hellacious recreations of the biplane battles that Howard Hughes staged for the cameras–“Flyboys” tells the story of the Lafayette Escradille, a division of the French military consisting of Americans who, in the days before official U.S. involvement in the way, took to the air as fighter pilots to beat back the German army. Although the subject matter may seem a little unusual for a contemporary film (although I recall at least one film made on the subject, “Lafayette Escradille,” best known today for featuring the young Clint Eastwood in a supporting role), don’t worry–director Tony Bill and the various screenwriters have gone to great lengths to make it seem as contrived and predictable as possible.There is a rebellious-yet-hunky newcomer (James Franco, still channeling James Dean, though this time with a Southern drawl that disappears every other scene), a seen-it-all veteran (Martin Henderson, inexplicably channeling the spirit of Ed Burns) and a rag-tag group of volunteers that come equipped with bravery, determination and a single internal emotional conflict. Here, one has a mysterious past that is somehow connected with his past life in Wisconsin. One is a bigoted snob with daddy issues. One is black and nothing else. One can’t hit the broad side of a barn with his machine guns and one gets the shakes after a particularly harrowing round of combat. I probably don’t need to tell you that each of these problems is overcome as quickly and cleanly as possible–this revelation will presumably come as much of a surprise as the revelation that their commander is played by none other than Jean Reno, Hollywood’s go-to guy when a taciturn Frenchman is required.
In a film like “Flyboys,” it is inevitable that the scenes on the ground are by far the weakest element and the ones on display here are especially draggy–the worst is the bland romance between Franco and French cutie Jennifer Decker, a relationship rendered startlingly uninteresting by their lack of any real chemistry (they both pitch woo as is English is their second or third language) and by the inescapable fact that Decker, while lovely, cannot act for beans. (Someone should have pointed out to her that if she is in a scene where she is shot, she might want to suggest that to the audience by offering some–any!–kind of reaction.) The problem is that the scenes up in the air are lacking as well–the CGI air battles have the unconvincing air of a middle-of-the-road video game and the big climactic battle feels like an afterthought as it winds up coming on 20 minutes after the film’s only exciting visual set-piece (a dogfight involving an enormous German zeppelin).Although there are a few laughs to be had here and there–some deliberate (Franco crash-lands his craft and is rescued by the employees of a local brothel) and some inadvertent (the cutie informs Franco that her family “died in an explosion”–which isn’t that funny until you see where she is standing when she says it)–and it is kind of cool to see some good old-fashioned dogfighting back on the silver screen, “Flyboys” is an overstuffed (coming in at 140 minutes) and undernourished flying circus that lacks the dramatic heft and entertainment value of Snoopy fighting the Red Baron