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A Guilty Pleasure if There Ever Was One

Before the United States entered World War I on the side of the French, the British and the Italian, a handful of Americans volunteered to become fighter pilots under the French. Their squadron was dubbed the “Lafayette Escadrille.” The trailers claim that Flyboys was “inspired by a true story”. “Inspired by” is one step below “based on” and one step above “completely made up”. In other words, if you go into Flyboys, expecting a history lesson, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

What you can expect, though, is an unqualified guilty pleasure. Directed by Tony Bill (Five Corners, Six Weeks), Flyboys has everything you could possibly want from a popcorn flick: lots of airborne action, one-dimensional villains, and a saccharine, chaste, resolutely straight romance as the secondary story.

Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), a down-on-his-luck Texan, learns about the distant war in Europe through newsreel footage he catches at a local movie theater. With nothing to lose, Rawlings heads east -- destination: France. Another idealistic American, William Jensen (Philip Winchester), leaves his parents and girlfriend in Nebraska behind, and heads for France. Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine), the son of a wealthy businessman, boards a ship, hoping to live up to his father’s lofty expectations. Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), an African-American expatriate living in France, foregoes a promising career as a boxer to fight on the French side. Last, Eddie Beagle (David Ellison), an American from Wisconsin, also shows up, keen on becoming a pilot and fighting the Germans.

In France, Captain Thenault (Jean Reno) takes over training the new pilots. The new pilots have two months to get ready for combat against the Germans. The squadron leader, Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson), reacts coldly toward the new arrivals, especially Rawlings. As Rawlings and the others take up their training in earnest, a pre-combat mishap deposits Rawlings in a French bordello where he meets Lucienne (Jennifer Decker), a French woman who doesn’t speak English. That doesn’t stop Rawlings from seeking out and courting Lucienne between training runs. In the skies, Rawlings and the other pilots have to contend with the Black Falcon (Gunnar Winbergh), the Germans’ best pilot.

With leading roles in Annapolis and now Flyboys, Franco seems to be cornering the market on Tom Cruise-like roles. Franco may not have Cruise's star power, but Cruise's star has been on the wane for the better part of a year. Plus, Cruise is no longer as young (or young looking) as he once was, so someone has to step into the arrogant, something-to-prove, best-of-the-best type of roles. Not surprisingly, that description pretty much sums up Rawlings, except Rawlings’ character arc follows a relatively flat trajectory (he’s a man of few doubts), leaving him to fly combat missions, gain and lose some friends, and eventually take on the Black Falcon in aerial combat partly out of duty, but mostly for revenge.

The primary reason moviegoers will check out Flyboys, though, can be summed up in two words: aerial dogfights between WWI-era biplanes. They’re all suitably impressive, if repetitive and occasionally difficult to follow. Not only does the Lafayette Escadrille have to take on experienced German pilots above French territory, but they also have to take out a dirigible headed for Paris on a bombing run. Flyboys doesn’t get to the dirigible scene until the end, though.

Flyboys has one or two narrative strategies worth mentioning. To make sure the Germans don’t generate any sympathy from moviegoers, the screenplay doesn’t give them any dialogue. The German pilots are faceless, with the exception a German pilot, Wolfert (Ian Rose), who acts honorably and the Black Falcon, who doesn't. Pity that the Black Falcon pilot wasn't given a mustache to twirl. Still, the French have had a hard time of it over the last five years, so seeing a film where they aren't the villains should be applauded. If Flyboys is any indication, there’s plenty to love about the French.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars