Reviewed by: Jeff Robinson

Let’s face it, Hollywood’s interpretation of history frequently leaves a lot to be desired. Pearl Harbor, U-571, The Patriot – the twin temptations of turning global conflict into soap opera and downplaying or demonising the role of everyone but the Americans have rarely been resisted.

So I approached a big-budget take on the air war over the Western Front starring the dodgy best friend from the Spider-Man franchise with a fair degree of trepidation. Especially when it trumpets itself as coming from “the producer of Independence Day and the Patriot”.

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Fortunately, Dean Devlin stops short of having the British as the villains this time. They ARE on the right side and they DO have an air force, too. But naturally they’re also snide and stand-offish to the American volunteers, at least until they’ve done their share of killing and one of them has knocked his tormenter into the middle of next week.

Subtlety, as you may have guessed, is in short supply here. In fact, it’s virtually non-existent. Tony Bill’s movie is an unashamedly old-fashioned war melodrama, giving you a thrill a minute and a couple of clichés in between. The square-jawed country boy? Check. The brave but jaded veteran/mentor? Check. The Ivy League dilettante who’s OK when the chips are down? The paternal commanding officer? All present and correct.

Fortunately it’s done with a ton of gusto, some impressive technical skill and enough incidental detail to prevent this becoming entirely a celebration of all-American boys winning a war single-handedly to make up for the fact that their country was even later for this one than the sequel.

Early signs are not promising, however. James Franco, you’ll be unsurprised to learn, is the aforementioned sjcb, Blaine Rawlings. He’s fled Texas after busting up the banker who foreclosed on the family ranch and fancies a taste of adventure. The opening scenes also introduce Jensen (Philip Winchester), scion of a Midwest military family; Harvard dropout Lowry (Tyler Labine); and the mysterious Beagle (David Ellison) – you can tell he’s the shady one because he wears a loud suit.

They are joined at the Lafayette base by Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), and here the movie does ring a few changes. Based on the real-life Eugene Bullard, the first ever African-American fighter pilot, he’s an expatriate boxer from a family of former slaves who volunteers to serve France “because she was kinder to me than America was”, but immediately encounters casual racism from the Brits and even his own comrades.

And the flyboys’ gung-ho ebullience is undercut by their commander, Captain Thenault (Jean Reno, giving another masterclass in Gallic gravitas), who is initially despairing of men who have come to fight for his country but can’t even be bothered to learn the language; and their squadron leader Cassidy (Martin Henderson), who has abandoned idealism or even a sense of duty and kills simply for revenge.

But this isn’t the kind of film to stand around gabbing, and it's not long before the boys are in the thick of it. The aerial scenes are undoubtedly impressive; the director is a licensed aerobatic pilot (as is Ellison) and Franco also qualified as a pilot as part of his preparation for the role. The second unit have assembled a sizeable roster of original and replica aircraft and use them as much as possible. One undoubtedly gets the sense of adrenaline-rush immediacy involved in piloting an invention that was barely a decade old, relying solely on hand-eye co-ordination to hit your target. The CGI is deployed sparingly and to impressive effect.

Unfortunately, once on the ground, things take a turn for the clunky. The dialogue might as well have speech bubbles and everyone on the Allied side is basically brave and noble. The Germans, on the other hand, are personified by The Black Falcon, a cold-eyed dastard who machine-guns pilots on the ground. Guess what? The climax pits him in a personal duel against Blaine.

And war-torn France (the film was actually shot entirely in England) looks at bit too much like a travel supplement, its refugees a bit too clean and well-fed. Naturally, Blaine falls in love with one of them, the radiant Lucienne (French newcomer Jennifer Decker) but again their romance is hampered by the fact they can barely communicate, and it doesn't turn out quite as you might expect.

With a few more such quirky details, Flyboys could have turned into a classic like William Wellman’s Wings or Hawks’ s Dawn Patrol (the movie’s obvious templates). It might even have become a piece of flinty revisionism like Aces High. Alas, the bombastic score, one-note air of manly rectitude and Franco’s lack of range as a leading man render it more of a Pearl Harbor with biplanes.

Reviewed on: 29 May 2007
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In World War One, a group of Americans volunteers to fly with a French squadron.
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Director: Tony Bill

Writer: Phil Sears, Blake T Evans and David S Ward, based on the story by Blake T Evans

Starring: James Franco, Martin Henderson, Jennifer Decker, David Ellison, Philip Winchester, Tyler Labine, Abdul Salis, Jean Reno

Year: 2006

Runtime: 138 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


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The Aviator
Pearl Harbor