‘Flyboys’ brings classic dogfights back to big screen | TahoeDailyTribune.com

‘Flyboys’ brings classic dogfights back to big screen

Howie Nave
Young Americans (from left, Martin Henderson, James Franco and David Ellison) take to the air, facing danger from the formidable German aggressors, as well as their own newly-invented, mechanically-imperfect aircraft, which were being used in combat for the first time in "Flyboys."

As a fan of aircraft that encompass the World War I era, I was already psyched anticipating the dogfights in what would launch the dawn of aircraft as military weapons. There hasn’t been a decent WW I movie involving dogfights since 1966’s “The Blue Max,” which starred George Peppard, James Mason and Ursula Andress. Now that was a great flick highlighting aerial combat! I’m guessing that even Snoopy liked that movie.

“Flyboys” is, well, not quite as good in that department, because back then, before the advent of “blue screen,” stunt pilots really did those amazing well-choreographed scenes in midair. Here you get the feeling the pilots are in a simulator, which is too bad for someone who is picky about their aircraft tactics. Nothing major, just nit-picking and being somewhat critical. Watch the machine-gun fire as the bullets leave a vapor trail heading toward their intended targets. When has that ever happened? I know it sounds anal, but c’mon. Get a consultant in there to correct that goof!

Still, there hasn’t been a decent movie that gave us a zeppelin from that era, so extra points go to “Flyboys” for that treat alone. But, that aside, director Tony Bill’s film captures some of the spirit of those romantic times, and captures all of the clichés of just about every war movie imaginable, too. I can forgive Tony for some of this because the vintage aircraft look pretty cool.

“Flyboys” is loosely based on that period of time before America officially entered the First World War via Europe. Many American pilots first earned their wings flying with the prestigious squadron known as the Lafayette Escadrille. This French outfit would produce some of the best air aces in an era where open cockpit biplanes (and triplanes) easily caught fire and parachutes were not a part of the required gear because of their bulkiness. They truly were the knights of the air. At least the flying scenes were better than those on the ground.

James Franco plays Blaine Rawlings, the lead character from the States, who does his best James Dean while trying to pull off a Texan accent. Not a terrible faux pas – nothing a dialogue coach couldn’t fix. There’s the squadron leader, Captain Thenault (played by Jean Reno), who seems to be cast as every authoritative Frenchman the studios can toss at him. He’s the mentor figure who even then tries to keep the Americans in line. The supporting cast is OK, mainly serving as background chess pieces, moved when necessary until the action kicks in over the Western Front. At least in the air the playing field is level, with only the pilots’ experience and tenacity to keep them from getting shot down.

On the ground there’s the whole preaching as to why certain elements of society have to wage war, or the social status between who is privileged and who is not. C’mon, just load the guns and shoot down a few Germans, OK? If I wanted a lecture on the unfairness of who gets it even after they volunteered, I would be watching the revisionist movie “Pearl Harbor” with Ben Affleck, which practically blamed the Americans for that attack. No thanks.

There’s the hint of a romantic interlude between Rawlings and local girl Lucienne D’Arcy (Jennifer Decker). OK, so they don’t speak much because of the language barrier, but what does it matter? His accent could change and then she might understand him. But once again let me reiterate: I am here for the dogfights. Period. For some the movie may seem to drag on, but I lasted through it fine. Sometimes it’s nice not to have to rush the movie-going experience and get lost in another time.

There have been a few good movies that covered the era of wood-and-fabric aircraft in battle. “The Blue Max” I already mentioned, but if you get an opportunity, check out William Wellman’s 1958 movie, “Lafayette Escadrille.” Granted, it’s a bit “Hollywoodized” but still worth checking out. And if you do check it out, see if you can spot a very young Clint Eastwood in a cast that includes the director’s son playing his dad, who was an actual pilot during the war.

– Howie Nave is host/manager of The Improv comedy club inside Harveys and reviews films for seven radio stations throughout northern California and Nevada, including the Sirius Radio Network every Sunday evening. He hosts “Howie’s Morning Rush” on Tahoe’s KRLT radio and you can see his film reviews every Friday morning on KOLO ABC TV Channel 8.

Keepin’ it Reel

Now playing: “Flyboys”

Starring: James Franco, Scott Hazel, Mac McDonald, Philip Winchester, Todd Boyce, Karen Ford, Ruth Bradley, Abdul Salis, Tim Pigott-Smith, Tyler Labine, Gail Downey, David Ellison, Jean Reno, Augustin Legrand, Keith McErlean, Martin Henderson, Lex Shrapnel and Jennifer Decker

Directed by: Tony Bill

Rated: PG-13 for war action violence and some sexual content

Length: 138 minutes

Howie gives it: 3 out of 5 bagels

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