The title sounds cute and maybe even a little flippant, but “Flyboys” is as earnest a war picture as you could possibly find.
Inspired by the Lafayette Escadrille, young Americans who volunteered to fly for the French military before the United States entered World War I, the movie combines traditional themes and events with high-tech imagery.
(You can keep your jokes about Snoopy battling the Red Baron to yourselves; there’s not much room for humor here.)
Little is new or different in “Flyboys” — if the movie had come out 50 years ago, it might have starred Henry Fonda or Montgomery Clift — but there’s a nice, comfortable camaraderie among the men, the dogfights are thunderous and the rescues can be thrilling.
James Franco does his stoic, James Dean thing as Blaine Rawlings, a rebellious Texan who signs up for the Escadrille after the bank forecloses his family’s ranch. Once he arrives in France he finds himself under the command of the no-nonsense Capt. Thenault (Jean Reno, perfectly cast).
Director Tony Bill, who won a best-picture Oscar for producing “The Sting,” explains why the other squadron members volunteered in sufficiently tidy, early set-up scenes. There’s the wealthy Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine), who hopes to make his hypercritical father proud; William Jensen (Philip Winchester), a third-generation military man with a sweetheart back home in Nebraska; and Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), a black boxer who’s been living in France and wants to help fight for the country that’s been more accepting of him.
Martin Henderson, meanwhile, is all swagger as Reed Cassidy, the veteran pilot who’s seen all his friends die in battle and whose arrogant, anti-social nature makes him the subject of rampant rumors. Guess what? Deep down, he’s actually a good guy. (His enemy, by the way, is the Black Falcon, an old friend of the Red Baron’s.)
They all learn to get along despite their disparate backgrounds — though Briggs’ innate prejudice against Skinner subsides a bit too quickly over a 100-year-old bottle of cognac.
But their bond strengthens believably every time they return from a mission and find their numbers diminished.
Blaine also bonds with a young Frenchwoman named Lucienne, with whom he begins a chaste romance over giggly tidbits of broken English. Sounds cheesy, right? And it probably is, but Jennifer Decker is so lovely in her film debut, you want to forgive this contrived little subplot. (Her presence also sets up a daring nighttime rescue when German soldiers invade her countryside home, putting her and her young niece and nephews in danger.)
But the most engaging parts of the film are the dogfight sequences themselves, the planes swooping and zooming, diving and twisting, making you feel as if you’re behind the controls though never looking as false as a video game. (You can see why George Lucas was inspired by this kind of flying when he was developing “Star Wars.”)
And yes, maybe it’s a little over the top when the Escadrille boys blow up a German zeppelin, but the ensuing explosions and fiery destruction are too killer to resist.