- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2006

Given the chilly relations between France and America, it’s hard to imagine a time when U.S. citizens volunteered to fight for L’Hexagone.

The new World War I action film “Flyboys” reminds us that some of the first men flying for France during World War I were from the U.S. of A.

“Flyboys” is based on the real life of the Lafayette Escadrille, a pioneering squad of French and American fighter pilots who battled German forces in the months before this country entered the war.

It’s a juicy topic for a feature film, brimming with heroism, cross-cultural conflicts and the inherent drama of the earliest days of flight. But “Flyboys” opts for a flyweight take on history, soaring chiefly when its special effects capture the spectacular dogfights.

James Franco leads the mostly unfamiliar cast, proving once again he’s the ideal man for superficial fare.

He plays a cowpoke named Blaine who enlists with the Lafayette Escadrille when his hometown police threaten to arrest him for instigating a brawl. The other pilots have their own reasons for signing up, from the spoiled rich kid trying to please his father to the black expat eager to repay France for being less racist than the U.S.

The crew bonds during the training period, and it’s here where “Flyboys” hits its stride. We rarely see films set during World War I these days, let alone movies where the recruits are trained on machines as cranky and unreliable as the earliest fighter planes.

Who cares that these top guns are as one-dimensional as a runway model?

Well, a film stretching to nearly 21/2 hours has to fill time between flights, and it’s here where “Flyboys” hits major turbulence. Mr. Franco’s Blaine strikes up a sweet romance with a French girl (Jennifer Decker), but the rest of the subplots crash and burn. We never learn anything about why the U.S. hasn’t entered the war yet nor any details about the war itself.

Jean Reno adds considerable gravitas as the pilots’ commander, but he disappears for much of the film’s midsection and returns only for a few moist-eyed moments.

“Flyboys” lifts off during the battle sequences, a triumph of computer effects blending seamlessly with actual flight footage. The film also doesn’t flinch about showing the horrors of war. The first combat scene leaves us as shaken as the pilots.

“Flyboys” contains plenty of material ripe for deletion. We wish one pilot’s embarrassing past hadn’t made the final cut. And if you’re going to introduce a racist pilot, give us the courtesy of showing his views evolving before the gooey reconciliation scene.

Flaws and all, “Flyboys” moves briskly, and there’s always a nifty flying sequence a few minutes away. And with the gorgeous French landscapes and the brief but potent scenes of trench warfare, the film could resuscitate celluloid interest in World War I.

**1/2

TITLE: “Flyboys”

RATING: PG-13 (Aerial action sequences, some gore and adult themes)

CREDITS: Directed by Tony Bill. Screenplay by Phil Sears, Blake T. Evans and David S. Ward.

RUNNING TIME: 139 minutes

WEB SITE: www.mgm.com/flyboys/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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