Once the stuff of legends, the exploits of the Lafayette Escadrille have receded into a dim, hazy past, one that is only fitfully brought to life in Flyboys. With its meticulous attention to detail and superior production values, the film promises much more than its unseasoned cast and thin plotting deliver. War buffs and curiosity seekers will be the primary audience.
The pilots in the Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron composed of American volunteers who were trained by the French to fight the Germans in World War I, came from varied backgrounds. In real life, they included luminaries like director William A. Wellman; here they are represented by "types": Texas rancher Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), who has lost the family spread in a mortgage foreclosure; wealthy New Yorker Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine), pressured to join by his demanding father; Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), a black boxer who fled to Europe to avoid racism; wholesome William Jensen (Philip Winchester), out to continue his family's tradition of service; and Eddie Beagle (David Ellison), a bad marksman with a shady past.
Once in France, the novices are taken in by a French captain (the affable Jean Reno, right now the perfect choice for a Charles de Gaulle biopic) and billeted with moody veteran Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson), whose pet lion gets more screen time than many of the fliers. Training, drinking, visits to the local bordello, and Blaine's halting romance with local farm girl Lucienne (Jennifer Decker) fill out the first half-hour of the film.
When it arrives, the first dogfight is an impressive mix of aerial footage and CGI, briskly staged and tightly edited. Subsequent battles are much less distinctive, despite the introduction of bigger planes, personal vendettas, and some farfetched plot twists. One Nieuport 17 diving and strafing (or dodging and crashing) is much like any other, no matter how many close-ups of grimacing pilots are inserted into the action. Over time, the use of CGI only serves to turn the aerial battles into the big-screen equivalent of a computer game.
Apart from Decker, who's very affecting in her big-screen debut, and the solid Labine, the younger actors often seem overmatched by the material. Franco, last seen boxing for the Navy in Annapolis, has the physique for his role, but little of the desperation and cunning one would expect from a pilot in his position.
This is the first feature in over a decade from director Tony Bill, a pilot himself. He makes room in the film for several real-life aerobatic pilots, like David Ellison, and clearly is devoted to presenting the period correctly. It's a shame he didn't have a stronger plot to work with. Still, if you've never seen a World War I aviation movie, Flyboys fits the bill.