Saturday, September 30, 2006

"Flyboys," dir. Tony Bill (Oklahoma Gazette)

Flight Patterns

When someone describes a war movie as “old-fashioned,” it can refer to rip-snortin’ entertainment. It can also mean just plain old, as in stale and mawkish. “Flyboys” is old-fashioned enough to encompass both senses of the phrase.

The movie’s blandness is a bit mystifying in light of its rich source material. “Flyboys” details the exploits of the Lafayette Escadrille, a real-life squadron of mostly American fighter pilots who fought for the French before the United States entered the First World War. With the trappings of that romanticized period – roaring biplanes and aerial dogfights, square-jawed Yanks squaring off against dastardly German foes – what could possibly go wrong?

The script, for starters. Judging by the stock characters gathered here, France must have made it a point to recruit only cardboard cutouts. The Escadrille includes such one-note Johnnies as Nebraska-farm-boy-who-wants-to-be-a-hero (Philip Winchester), guy-who-can’t-do-anything-right (David Ellison) and religious guy (Michael Jibson). The filmmakers subtly convey *his* single character trait because he reads the Bible and sings “Onward Christian Soldier” in the heat of battle.

For greater depth, “Flyboys” offers Blaine Rawlings (James Franco) as its nominal hero. The young man hightails it out of his Texas hometown after roughing up a banker, but all traces of a potentially shaded -- and interesting -- personality have disappeared by the time he arrives in France to join the squadron. The only remaining mystery about Rawlings, in fact, is how his Texas accent comes and goes at will.

This is the sort of movie that telegraphs everything within the first few minutes. When a rich ne’er-do-well (Tyler Labine) balks at having to share quarters with a scrappy black soldier (Abdul Salis), you know it’s only a matter of time before the cad learns the error of his ways.

But lame characterization can be forgiven in a war flick if countered by solid action. Thankfully, “Flyboys” steeps itself in World War I’s iconic imagery of biplanes sputtering machinegun fire through skies of ash and smoke. The special effects are impressive, and director Tony Bill does a serviceable job with the aerial sequences, even if “Flyboys” falls short of the derring-do evident in classic WWI movies such as 1930’s “Hell’s Angels” or 1937’s “The Dawn Patrol.”

While there are some startling scenes -- German planes suddenly emerging from clouds like a swarm of wasps, the earth-rattling explosion of a zeppelin -- they add up to little more than momentary diversions. It also doesn’t help that the pilot garb of goggles and scarves makes it nearly impossible to know who is doing what.

Once on terra firma, there’s no such confusion. The screenwriters ladle on the clichés with subplots running the gamut from racism to shellshock, oppressive fathers to the war-hardened cynicism of a veteran pilot (Martin Henderson). Perhaps the biggest groan-inducer is a tacked-on love story in which Rawlings falls for a pretty French girl (Jennifer Decker) who is apparently smitten by the man’s inability to speak her language. Luckily, there is common ground between American cheese and French cheese.


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