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The Independent Critic

James Franco, Jean Reno, Martin Henderson, Jennifer Decker
Tony Bill
Phil Sears, Blake Evans, David Ward
139 Mins.
20th Century Fox
 "Flyboys" Review 
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Hollywood continues to be baffled with how to cast James Franco, a classically handsome actor who leaped to fame in the television series "Freaks and Geeks" then captured a Golden Globe for his performance as 50's legend James Dean in the miniseries of the same name.

Franco, whose resemblance to James Dean is rather uncanny, maintains big-screen viability almost solely due to his performance as Harry Osborn in the "Spider-Man" film series. Outsideof the Osborn character, In 2006 alone, Franco has been cast in a series of awkward, unimpressive films such as "Tristan & Isolde," "Annapolis" and "The Great Raid." Tragically, he's even had poor cameos, as seen in the recent "The Wicker Man" remake. Only "The Ape," a film Franco co-wrote and directed, has actually provided Franco a chance to truly flex his acting muscles and show he's more than a pretty face.

Now comes "Flyboys," a throw-back to the war films of the 50's and 60's, starring Franco as Blaine Rawlings, a Texas farmer who loses the family ranch and decides to enlist in the Lafayette Escadrille, a real-life force of American pilots during World War I that fought for the French before the United States even joined the war.

Director Tony Bill seems an odd choice to helm such a film, with a primary background of overwrought love stories and TV series episodes. With "Flyboys," Bill utilizes both his directorial strengths in dealing with subtle human relationships while also expanding upon his talent base by directing a film set directly in World War I with numerous scenes involving fighter pilots and battle sequences.

It would be a mistake, however, to go into "Flyboys" expecting anything resembling "Saving Private Ryan," The Thin Red Line" or any number of recent war films. "Flyboys" is very much a throwback to the post-World War II films starring the likes of Montgomery Clift and William Holden. In "Flyboys," there's more theatrics than hardcore fight sequences and camaraderie is emphasized more than conflict.

The characters in "Flyboys," penned by Phil Sears ("The Ripper Man") and Blake Evans, a longtime cinematographer, are rather predictable. Beyond Franco's macho farmer, there's a young rich man whose a disappointment to his father (Tyler Labine), a young African-American boxer who left America to escape racism (Abdul Salis), another young man whose family is filled with war heroes (Phillip Winchester), the obligatory Christian man (Michael Jibson) and the list goes on and on.

"Flyboys" is a tad refreshing in that it doesn't build in any artificial conflict for the new recruits. The "hard ass" soldier with 20 kills to his name, Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson), is cynical but clearly cares about the new recruits. Thus, again, the film stresses camaraderie over conflict making a clear-cut "good guys vs. bad guys," film...or, in this case, French vs. Germans.

The obligatory is, of course, completely unnecessary. It is, however, innocent and easygoing enough that the storyline seldom distracts from the goings on of the war. Furthermore, it affords Franco a chance to turn it up a notch with his macho heroics in rescuing her and three children as the Germans arrive in their village.

The reality is that "Flyboys" is a fairly corny film, however, it's a good-natured, friendly sort of corniness that is hard not to enjoy on a certain level. Each member of the cast is given their moment to shine, however, they are much more effective as an ensemble cast.

Franco still hasn't quite mustered up enough emotional range to pull of a romantic performance, however, his light, easygoing humor works well during fight scenes and his scenes with other pilots. As a French woman who becomes the object of his affection, Jennifer Decker shows great potential with a performance that is consistently engaging and sweet.

As the "hard ass" Cassidy, Martin Henderson adds layers to a character that feels written as a caricature. The other actors, unfortunately, don't quite have Henderson's range and occasionally fall victim to dialogue that is filled with too many cliche's and one or two-note characterizations.

As the squadron's General, Jean Reno offers a marvelous, understated performance that seems perfectly in touch with the film's balance of serious action and corniness.

"Flyboys," ultimately, comes down to the action. While it may not please today's war film fan with its old-fashioned approach to World War I fighter planes, those who enjoy going to air shows will be utterly enchanted with the film's endless devotion to acrobatics, fight sequences, stunts and authentic-looking scenes. There's even a scene involving an old Zeppelin thrown in for good measure!

Cinematography, especially during fight sequences, is simple yet effective. The slow-motion scenes and "look you in the face" scenes between the pilots do get a bit excessive and distracting at times.

Brought to us by Dean Devlin ("Independence Day" and "The Patriot"), "Flyboys" has only a touch of that hyper-sensory approach that Michael Bay has perfected. Instead, "Flyboys" takes a simple story and presents it in a rather straightforward fashion. The use of CGI is modest, though rather obvious when it occurs.

Largely due to its obvious intentional corniness and winning fight sequences, "Flyboys" is a modestly entertaining, lightweight war film featuring dependable performances led by James Franco, Jean Reno and Martin Henderson. While it's unlikely to land on anyone's list of "Best War Movies," it is a nice homage to an older style of film-making that still entertains...even if you do sit there chuckling at it a bit in the process.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic