Even before the United States entered World War I, Americans were already serving and dying over France as part of a volunteer squadron in the French air corps known as the Lafayette Escadrille. It's a story that deserves a better telling than the uninspired, if watchable, action drama Flyboys (MGM).
Directed by Tony Bill, the movie follows the aviation exploits of a disparate group of Yanks who are transformed in different ways by their wartime experience. They enlist for various reasons. Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), a Texas cowboy who lost the family ranch to foreclosure, is on the run from the law. William Jensen (Philip Winchester) hopes to continue his family's military legacy. Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine) is a New York blueblood wanting to earn his father's approval. Lyle Porter (Michael Jibson) is a Christian who, ironically, sings “Onward Christian Soldiers” while gunning down enemy aircraft. Then there's expatriate boxer Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis) — the only black pilot — who wants to fight for his adopted homeland.
While most of the characters are composites of the actual pilots, the squadron's commander, Captain Georges Thenault (Jean Reno), was a real person. Martin Henderson provides some interest as veteran flying ace Reed Cassidy, whose pet lion serves as the squadron's mascot and who is obsessed with adding the Kaiser's top gun — a cartoon villain called the Black Falcon (Gunnar Winbergh) — to his “kill” tally. Jennifer Decker provides window dressing as Lucienne, a French girl whom Blaine pursues between missions.
The film's appealing cast is wasted on an episodic and overly long script that never takes off dramatically and has no well-developed characters.
Blending live action and computer effects, the movie's aerial dogfight sequences are visually impressive, with Bill paying homage to old-time movies like The Dawn Patrol and Wings. But without a strong story, the set pieces — including a zeppelin bursting into flame midair — lack emotional impact.
While Flyboys does not skirt the ugliness of combat — amputated limbs, shell shock, air casualties — a few scenes present a somewhat sentimentalized view of warfare. Overall, Bill can't seem to decide if he wants to make a rousing action yarn or something slightly more sober.
The film contains recurring wartime violence, a scene in a brothel, a suicide, some sexual innuendo, scattered mildly crude expressions, profanity and racial slurs. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
(This review appears courtesy of US Conference of Catholic Bishop's Office for Film and Broadcasting.)