Reviewed By Lybarger
Posted 09/25/06 01:33:55

"In Air, Goooood. On Ground, Baaaaad."
3 stars (Average)

Despite the rich dramatic potential that World War I tales offer, “Flyboys,” which celebrates the achievements of the aerial pioneers known as the Lafayette Escadrille, unspools mechanically and only really comes alive when the hardware first appears.

Despite being partially scripted by Oscar-winner David S. Ward (“The Sting”), “Flyboys” looks great but proceeds as if it were written by a template instead of a screenwriter.

As depicted in the film, the Lafayette Escadrille are a group of American misfits who fly for the French before the United States enters the Great War. They include a Texas rancher named Blaine Rawlings (James Franco) who’s lost his family spread to the bank.

There’s also a spoiled rich kid named Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine), who’d be a frat boy if he weren’t already expelled. As in the mix are a Midwestern guy named Eddie Beagle (David Ellison, “Chumscrubber”), who’s aim and shady background are not assets to the crew and an African-American boxer named Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis) who’s eager to repay the country that’s treated him better than his native land.

Trying to turn this group of motley volunteers into air warriors is the stern but caring Captain Thenault (Jean Reno, playing the only real person in the film) and an aloof veteran pilot named Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson, “The Ring”) who sees the newbies as little more than cannon fodder.

Once the lads actually get in the cockpit and start trading bullets with the Germans, the film finally gains momentum and starts to show some personality of its own. Director Tony Bill (“My Bodyguard”) is an avid scholar of the War to End All Wars, so he and screenwriters Phil Sears, Blake T. Evans and Ward fill the story with seemingly outlandish details that are actually true to the period.

Yes, the Escadrille really did have a lion mascot (two of them, actually), and Skinner’s inclusion is a concession to history, not political correctness (his real life counterpart Eugene Bullard has a nearly identical biography).

Even the over the top Zeppelin battle has some historical precedent. The machine gunners did actually ride on top of the airships. They may not have run across them like the fellow does in the theatrical trailer, but the film does not exaggerate how dangerous the battles really were. Combatants really could see each others faces and flew that closely together.

With the hardware and the period detail handled so well, it’s a shame that Bill and his collaborators don’t have the same proficiency in capturing the pilots. Because of the short life expectancy of the Escadrille (at one point they might expect to last a mere 18 hours), it’s dramatically necessary to use composite characters.

The disadvantage of this technique is that the people in the story occasionally seem like they are three or four people rolled into one. It’s almost like the actors have to play a different role in each scene. It’s also really easy to confuse one pilot with another. As a result, it’s hard not to get bored until the next dogfight begins.

The stillborn romance between Rawlings and a pretty French girl (Jennifer Decker) doesn’t help. It may be difficult to write dialogue for two lovers who don’t speak the same language, but some of Rawlings’ pickup lines sound worse than the ones George Lucas gave Anakin Skywalker (“So you're a prostitute? You don't look like one.”).

If you want to see the human side of World War I handled more expertly, check out Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory,” Jean Renoir’s “The Grand Illusion” or Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “A Very Long Engagement." In interviewing some of the filmmakers involved, I discovered that they had seen the same movies I had and understood them but somehow couldn’t repeat their predecessors’ success.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.