Unlike most war movies, “Flyboys” doesn’t unfold to the sound of furious gunfire in a corpse-riddled battlefield. It begins with a cowboy.

Morgan Morel
Off into the sunset. (Courtesy of MGM)

James Franco (fresh from his boxing days at “Annapolis”) plays Blaine Rawlings, an all-American farm boy who enlists in the French military during World War I to avoid getting arrested for instigating a brawl in his hometown. He becomes a part of the historic Lafayette Escadrille, a group of eager young Americans who have no idea what lies ahead as they learn how to pilot some of the first fighter planes ever created.

Despite the big explosions and smooth digital effects, “Flyboys” doesn’t bank on its uneventful fighting scenes. It’s the characters that define the film.

A son (Tyler Labine, “Aurora Borealis”) tries to win his way back into his aristocratic father’s good graces. A devout pilot (newcomer Pip Pickering) sings hymns to focus while in the air. A hardened veteran (Martin Henderson, “Torque”) can’t help but see a younger version of himself in Rawling’s idealistic commitment to honor.

None of the fighters are perfect – their idiosyncrasies are realistic enough that their inexperience is painful to watch. This is the rare type of action flick that actually wants you to care about who lives or dies.

But it’s still a product of Hollywood and not the History Channel. There are cinematically unrealistic moments where all battle tactics are tossed aside in favor of highly dramatized one-on-one pilot showdowns. In true “Top Gun” style, fighters careen toward each other in the ultimate contest of chicken; eventually, the peacock with the brightest feathers (in this case the Germans) wins and a convenient moment of orchestral tragedy ensues.

The film also has its fair share of contrived storylines. As the branded hero, Rawlings is able to survive a crash, wake up in a brothel filled with beautiful women and then quickly fall in love with a sweetly innocent French girl, Lucienne (Jennifer Decker), all in the same day.

Aside from the obligatory hero/damsel-in-distress romance, there’s also a racially charged side plot with Labine’s character Briggs Lawry. He politely objects to rooming with a black comrade, Skinner (Abdul Salis, “Sahara”), because that would mean “sleeping with the servants.” Later, of course, Skinner winds up saving his life and the two make up over a bottle of 100-year-old brandy. And as unoriginal as this lesson is, at least there’s some booze and genuine fellowship involved.

Despite these conventions, “Flyboys” wisely fixates on showing how human its characters are rather than how cold a war can be. This creates a film that’s oddly devoid of political bias, where even the Germans are painted as surprisingly docile. Perhaps the scenes in which we witness them being shockingly gracious to their enemies are meant to be a telling statement in itself.

Star Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

At the Showcase and Quality 16

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