Little more than a year after he anchored the World War II heroics of “The Great Raid,” James Franco assumes an almost identical role as Blaine Rawlings, a rugged Texas rancher who, having lost the family homestead to the bank, heads to France to join an all-American ragtag squadron. It's the usual assortment of archetypal doughboys--the expectation-burdened son of a cavalry officer (Philip Winchester), the spoiled son of a wealthy industrialist (Tyler Labine), the expatriate black boxer (Abdul Salis) and the obligatory cipher (David Ellison) whose questionable background and uncertain manner generate growing suspicion and skepticism. Then there's the cynical veteran (Martin Henderson), the imperious French commander (Jean Reno) and the always-vital French country girl (Jennifer Decker) who captures Rawlings' heart and spurs his courage in ways that patriotism and a general sense of justice can't hope to approach.
It's a bit ironic that, some eight decades after “Wings” and “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the WWI genre has made remarkably few strides. For all its well-intentioned heroics and aerial acrobatics--courtesy of some modestly impressive effects work--there's just nothing here that feels fresh or meaningful. Even the dogfights, orchestrated with immense technical resources at Bill's disposal, can't match the visceral dynamism of earlier films, particularly the silent “Wings,” which was filmed entirely with real planes.
Films about iconoclastic soldier boys are an increasingly tired institution, though, and “Flyboys” doesn't make any effort to sidestep its most grating touchstones. Franco, who once won an Emmy for playing James Dean, has since made a career of chasing Dean's persona, though plying this trade in a field of cardboard cutout characters makes the effort seem extremely shallow. Bill, working from a David S. Ward (“The Sting”) rewrite of an earlier script by Phil Sears and Blake Evans, is clearly at home with the aerial work since he is, himself, a longtime aerobatic pilot. But his enthusiasm wanes whenever the story is grounded, letting the actors and the story sleepwalk through their generic paces.
This will probably all be perfectly fine for undemanding filmgoers just looking for a diverting war drama with a feel-good pulse and a decent dose of old-fashioned action and romance. But the wanton avoidance of the war's more gruesome aspects and a general malaise with respect to offering something more original than genre conventions will severely limit its long-term prospects. Starring James Franco, Jean Reno, Martin Henderson, Jennifer Decker and Tyler Labine. Directed by Tony Bill. Written by David S. Ward and Blake Evans. Produced by Dean Devlin and Marc Frydman. An MGM release. Period drama. Rated PG-13 for for war violence and some sexual content. Running time: 139 min.