Plane and ordinary

‘Flyboys’ rarely soars, but serves up passing thrills

Hollywood has long been fascinated by World War II and Vietnam, but the Great War, as World War I was known, has rarely been subjected to the same cinematic scrutiny, perhaps because the roots of that conflict have been obscured over time, and its moral imperatives now seem less compelling. America’s mid-century triumph over fascism, like its ill-conceived attempt to defend the Vietnamese from themselves, is still fresh in our collective consciousness. Meanwhile, memories of World War I have faded with the passage of each generation.

“Flyboys” seeks to revive those memories, recalling a time before freedom fries when French and American soldiers fought side-by-side against the forces of German imperialism. It’s inspired by a true story, of course, faithfully re-creating dramatic air battles (with a dash of “Top Gun”-style stunt work) and loosely basing its ragtag heroes on real American fighter pilots. It is also riddled with clichés and trite resolutions, and though the action is fast, furious and thrilling, it’s hard to overlook a plot so rife with assembly-line developments.

The Flyboys — American members of the Lafayette Escadrille airborne unit — are an affable bunch, led by the ruggedly handsome Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), a cowboy type who’s eager to make a name for himself as a daredevil ace. Naturally, he’s flanked by a gang of misfits: Beagle (David Ellison), a curiously incompetent pilot with a shady past; Jensen (Philip Winchester), an Army legacy racked with self-doubt; Briggs (Tyler Labine), a portly rich kid who lacks direction; and Skinner (Abdul Salis), a black prizefighter who has taken refuge in France to escape racial intolerance at home.

After some initial clashing — Briggs, for instance, can’t stomach the notion of rooming with Skinner, because it would be like “sleeping with the servants” — they become fast friends, making their near-daily casualties that much harder to accept. No surprise there, nor is it much of a surprise when Rawlings falls for a lovely mademoiselle (Jennifer Decker) and throws himself into a linguistically challenged courtship. From there, the movie settles into a pattern of dazzling dogfights separated by romantic interludes that slow the pace back down to a crawl.

That’s a shame, because “Flyboys” almost works, despite the clunky dialogue and slick, unimaginative storytelling. The film is decidedly old-fashioned, lacking the cynical wit and hellish intensity of grittier war fare such as “Full Metal Jacket” and “Saving Private Ryan,” but the aerial combat is genuinely exhilarating, and Franco is capable enough as a leading man to breathe life into stale material. “Flyboys” is weighed down by too much dramatic artifice, too many moments that ring false and too many loose ends tied up neatly and unconvincingly. Yet Franco manages to get it off the ground and keep it there, if just barely skimming the treetops.

Movie review

Flyboys ??½

Starring James Franco, Philip Winchester, Abdul Salis, David Ellison, Michael Jibson and Jean Reno

Written by Phil Sears, Blake Evans and David Ward

Directed by Tony Bill

Rated PG-13

Running time 139 minutes

Learning to ‘Fly’

Palo Alto native Franco’s career takes off in new drama

James Franco could probably use some time off. Just don’t tell him that.

After landing a supporting role in his first feature film, the 1999 Drew Barrymore comedy “Never Been Kissed,” Palo Alto native Franco made his breakthrough as rebellious burnout Daniel Desario on the short-lived NBC comedy “Freaks and Geeks.” Despite critical acclaim and a fanatical following, “Freaks” was canceled after one season, but it paved the way for another star-making turn: the title role in the TNT biopic “James Dean.”

Since then, Franco has filled out his résumé in alarmingly prolific fashion, starring in more than 15 films, including two (“The Ape,” “Fool’s Gold”) that he wrote and directed. He has also earned star billing in two of the top-grossing films in U.S. history: “Spider-Man” and “Spider-Man 2.” Even so, the precocious 28-year-old is constantly reminded of his small-screen successes.

“Along with ‘Spider-Man,’ people tend to associate me with ‘Freaks and Geeks’ or ‘James Dean,’” he said. “‘Freaks and Geeks’ was a blast. When it was on the air, it didn’t really get a chance, but I think the producer, Judd Apatow, had the foresight to know that it would come out on DVD, so he put everything into each episode. Now it’s a cult classic.”

Now, after a stint at the Naval Academy in this year’s “Annapolis,” Franco takes to the sky as a World War I fighter pilot in “Flyboys.” Aware that filmmakers have rarely embraced the so-called War to End All Wars as a cinematic enterprise since the days of Howard Hughes, he was eager to re-enact the legendary adventures of the Lafayette Escadrille, which featured America’s first team of airborne warriors.

“It’s a period and a group of people that haven’t been portrayed in a long time,” Franco said. “The last World War I aviator film was ‘The Blue Max,’ from the ’60s, which wasn’t very good. Before that, there were Howard Hughes’ ‘Hell’s Angels,’ in 1930, and ‘Wings,’ which won the first Oscar for Best Picture in 1929. In those old films, they had real pilots, but the action was very limited. The technology has reached a point where we can portray those battles more realistically, giving you a tasteof aerial combat without endangering the lives of the actors. Three pilots died during the filming of ‘Hell’s Angels.’”

Of course, Franco wasn’t content to let CGI animators have all the fun. He signed on for “Flyboys” in December 2004, but when filming didn’t begin until the summer, he became restless.

“Tony Bill, the director, is trained as an aerobatic pilot, so he took me up in his plane and did all kinds of tricks. Then he threw me right into the mix,” Franco said. “I’d never been in a small plane like that before, but he took me to the runway and told me to take it up. I loved it, and I’ve been hooked ever since.”

Now that “Flyboys” is cleared for takeoff, Franco is ready for new adventures. In May, “Spider-Man 3” hits theaters, all but ensuring him another blockbuster success. But Franco hasn’t forgotten his TV buddies.

“I’m going to do a movie with Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen,” Franco said. Rogen, a one-time “Freak” who had a memorable turn in Apatow’s “40-Year-Old Virgin,” has since written a script for a comedy called “Pineapple Express,” in which Franco will star. “I’ll be reunited with my ‘Freaks and Geeks’ friends, and that’s fine with me.”

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