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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Flyboys

Before I go any further, I want James Franco to know that I feel his pain. I do. I have no idea why his latest movie, Flyboys, which is currently playing at the Essex Cinemas, is being given the cold shoulder by its’ own studio, but the movie certainly deserves better. The promotional budget for this epic tale of World War I Flying Aces must have been about $14.95 or so judging by the skimpy ad campaign and exposure the film has been given in the press. Heck, it wasn’t even screened for critics in advance, usually a sign that the studio has no confidence in the movie’s performance at the box office. That was a mistake.

The movie I saw this weekend was a fast-paced adventure, with a large cast and an interesting story that kept its’ 133 minute running time from seeming the least bit padded or dragging. If anything, Flyboys could have easily been trimmed simply because it had too much story to tell, though each of the characters’ tales was individually compelling and it would have been a shame to lose any of them to the editor’s scissors.

Flyboys begins in 1916, long before the United States became involved in
WW I, but at a time when England, France, and Italy are already being ravaged by the Germans and the troops are quickly becoming decimated. A handful of Americans have come to France as volunteers to learn to fly and fight on behalf of the French in a real life unit that was called the Lafayette Escadrille. This is the story of several of these young men, whose paths cross at the same moment in history and whose lives then end up depending on one another for their very survival.

Leading the cast is the aforementioned James Franco (Tristan + Isolde) as Blaine Rawlings, a Texan who abandons the States after the bank forecloses on his family’s ranch. His brooding and rule-breaking cowboy character comes off first as annoying but in minutes it is obvious he is going to be the best “straight shooter” of his squadron. Naturally, since he bears an uncanny resemblance to the late James Dean, Franco is the romantic lead of the picture, and could it really be a war movie without star-crossed lovers meeting somewhere along the way?

In his “down time” Rawlings makes the acquaintance of a young Frenchwoman named Lucienne (Jennifer Decker, making her American film debut). Lucienne is caring for her late brother and sister-in-law’s children and lives a hardscrabble life in the countryside, barely involved in the war itself. Complicating things is the fact that Lucienne speaks no English, so the two begin a too-precious romance that is highlighted with struggles over understanding the simplest of words. Probably the most unbelievable part of the whole movie is in how quickly Lucienne seems to assimilate Anglais, even when she and Blaine are separated for long periods. Okay, okay, so it has a few flaws, but it is sweet, and in a good way. Of course you just know the Germans are going to come stomping their way through Lucienne’s pastoral fields and storm into her home requiring Rawlings to sweep in and rescue her and her nieces and nephews, but it’s no cornier than Luke Skywalker rescuing Princess Leia from the evil Storm troopers in the original Star Wars.

As a matter of fact, anyone who enjoyed the George Lucas trilogy ought to like Flyboys because it was footage from old movies and newsreels of bi-planes fighting in the World Wars that inspired his Rebel and Empire dogfights in space.

In addition to Rawlings, the Escadrille includes William Jensen (Philip Winchester; Thunderbirds), a third generation soldier who leaves his parents and fiancée back in Nebraska in an effort to continue family honor
and tradition; there’s Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine; Aurora Borealis), a snobby, pampered failure of a boy who is shipped off to the battalion by his father, mostly to get rid of the son he is fed up with; Eddie Beagle (David Ellison; When All Else Fails), is a mysterious curiosity that seems to know just a bit too much about the Germans to make the others comfortable, and Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis; Animal) is a black boxer who has been living in France because he heard that Europe was more accepting of the “negro” and he now wants to show his gratitude for his acceptance into society here by fighting for his adopted country. Rounding out the squadron is bitter American pilot Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson; Little Fish), the sole survivor of his devastated former air brigade. He brings a sense of doom and gloom (or is it reality?) to the proceedings by continually reminding the newcomers that their life expectancy is somewhere between three to six weeks. The Commander is played by veteran French actor Jean Reno (The Pink Panther), who carries a perfect balance of authority and humanity to this role as Captain Thenault. Just when you think he may teeter towards unreasonable dictator, his eyes twinkle with a touch of warmth, and you know he understands the heartbreak the men are feeling over a particular loss. His is an understated yet marvelous performance as he tends to usually give no matter what the quality of material he is handed.

Purists may grumble that many of the aerial scenes are computer-
generated, but I don’t think it is any more fair to argue that point than it is to discount the Lord of the Rings, for instance, for not using a “real” volcano in its’ climax. The action here looks real enough and that is what counts.

The drama is in the skies, where the men’s fates are always in question and every flight literally is a matter of life and death for the men of the Escadrille. This is where the excitement will have the viewer on the edge of his or her seat, and I am not embarrassed (well, maybe a little) to tell you that I found myself twisting and ducking just a wee bit, as if I was actually on board one of the planes. The views on-screen are often set up to appear as if you are in the cockpit with the pilot and you are seeing what he is, and that includes the weaving and swerving to avoid incoming gunfire from the Germans’ more advance tri-planes.

Overall, Flyboys offers a reminder to the audience of an amazing era gone bye and of the real courage it took for these young men to fly these planes, which were basically little more than fabric sewn over a metal skeleton. They had no parachutes and no instruments beyond their eyes, yet they felt so strongly in the cause of freedom they were willing to risk their lives to ensure that this freedom would belong to others. It is a shame that the movie has been treated like a red-headed step-child, as my grandmother might have said. The acting is solid, the story is entertaining, God only knows the message is relevant in today’s war-torn world, and it has a heck of a lot better production values than this week’s other new release, Jackass: Number Two.

Do yourself a favor and fly down to the
Essex Cinemas for a really uplifting couple of hours. You’ll be glad you did.

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