Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama
Director: Tony Bill
Screenwriters: Phil Sears, Blake T. Evans
Starring: James Franco, Jean Reno, Jennifer Decker
There’s nothing like trivializing a World War to pass an autumn evening. The problem with Flyboys isn’t that it uses a World War I backdrop to tell a sentimentalized Hollywood story, but that the story is so frivolous, predictable and silly. Having now seen this and next week’s The Guardian consecutively, I could write a thesis on what happens when reliable movie conventions become hideous excesses. There is no reason for the true story of the first American fighter pilots to be this laughable.
The film begins by introducing its protagonists in quick succession, using quickie signifiers to define them; this pretty much suffices for the rest of the movie. We have Harvard Boy (who turns out to be an ass; more on that later), Hometown Hero, Reticent Cowboy and a few others; the only remotely intruguing personage is the black boxer who came to France because he thought he would be treated better, and turned out to be correct. They all have their reasons for enlisting, and they congregate under the direction of Captain Thenault (Jean Reno), who promises to turn them into fighter pilots so they can go off and die for a country that’s not theirs.
I should note, to begin with, that I consider James Franco (the Reticent Cowboy) to be a superb actor, the kind who can bring unexpected gravitas to virtually any role — see, e.g. Annapolis. Nevertheless, his presence here is a pretty reliable indicator of the Kind of Movie this is, and once I realized what Kind of Movie this is, I immediately began to brainstorm how the screenplay will shoehorn an obligatory romance into the mix. I won’t give away the details, but I’ll ask this: do you really think that the hero of a movie like Flyboys would fall in love with a prostitute? Even one who really likes flowers?
Of course he wouldn’t, and the Cowboy’s French love interest is nearly as saintly as the Cowboy himself. And lest you think that the romance remains a peripheral sublot, wait until you get a load of one of the film’s climaxes, which involves our hero stealing his own plane to save the damsel in distress from the Germans. And then the movie outdoes itself by having the Cowboy marshalled in front of Thenault who proceeds to berate and threaten him only to have it turn out that he’s really giving him a medal.
The coup de grace of the whole thing is the interaction between Harvard Boy and the black boxer. There’s a scene early in the film when we see the future fighter pilots get their room assignments. “Why is the script spending time on room assignments?” I wondered. But of course — it’s so that Harvard Boy can point out that rooming with the black kid would be like sharing a room with “one of his servants back home.” Whoa! Three guesses what happens and how, and the first two don’t count.
Look, all of this stuff can work, and has before. But there are so many hoary old chestnuts here that it quickly becomes ridiculous. It is not formula I object to, but the lazy way that the film throws out cliché after cliché until the only question to ask is: does Flyboys really need to be seen? In the final estimation, it’s little more than a bunch of canned characters thrown into a familiar story, saying and doing things you’ve seen a million times before. The movie has little style and less conviction, flatly going from scene to scene and battle to battle until the dogfights run together and the players lose what distinguishing characteristics they had in the first place. Where’s the appeal?