Touted as the first World War I aviation film in over forty years, Flyboys does have the advantage of novelty, if only in its derring-do trappings. In its broad strokes (and they're plenty broad, believe me), Tony Bill's new film does slather historical situations—genuine but generic—onto its oversized, 139-minute frame. Unfortunately, even true incidents ring false when placed in the context of a thoroughly phony screenplay.
James Franco plays Blaine Rawlings, the moody center of the Lafayette Escadrille. The famous French squadron, made up primarily of American pilots, takes to the air in dangerously incipient aerial technology. Though the pilots thrill to their new vehicles, each has a shadowed past to escape and a predictable emotional arc that, once completed, frees him up to be spectacularly killed. I wouldn't place any bets on the devoutly religious pilot—who sings "Onward Christian Soldiers" as he flies into battle—surviving to the final reel.
Flyboys' spectacular predictability confirms its shallowness—the affirmed racism of Tyler Labine's rich but unloved daddy's boy, for example, will be neatly corrected when his black compatriot (Abdul Salis) saves his life in battle. As the captain in charge of the squadron, Jean Reno attempts to do enough acting to cover the entire cast, while Franco does double duty, playing dashing lover-rescuer to a country girl (Jennifer Decker) and petulant rival to the outfit's emotionally numb alpha pilot (Martin Henderson).
In spite of itself, the picture does roar to life with each dogfight, even though Bill stages each with all the synthetic excitement of a videogame (dude, make the zeppelin explode again!). The postcard tableaus are color-corrected to excess, and a rather insane rescue of a pilot grounded in No Man's Land seems to have been imported from some other war film. The battles are enough nominally to goose the film along, but once the final credits mercifully roll, the whole experience washes away, leaving the nasty impression of wasted hours.