Paying tribute to the original Top Guns.
How It Rates: ***
Starring: James Franco, Martin Henderson, Jean Reno
Red Flags: Aerial Combat Violence
Many call the Korean War the "forgotten war," but I find World War I slipping from our memories in spite of monuments and memorials. The War to End All Wars became the War Before Several More. And how many of us remember the Lost Generation before the Greatest Generation? Unlike the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War II or Vietnam, WWI doesn't seem to hold some great moral theme or shared sacrifice at home for us to reflect upon. Indeed, the causes of the war, the ones historians more or less agree on -- nationalism, imperialism, militarism -- appear as two or three of the biggest kids on the block slugging it out just to see who's toughest.
More than 15 million died in WWI, which changed the face of combat and introduced a new field of battle: the air. Flyboys tells the adapted story of the Lafayette Escadrille, a French squadron of volunteer American fighter pilots formed before the United States entered The Great War and before "dogfight" referred to air warfare. Among those signing on for duty are Blaine Rawlings (Franco), a Texas cowboy who's just lost the family ranch; Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis) A black American boxer who fights in France because they treat "negroes" better; and Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine), a son of aristocrats hoping to redeem himself in the eyes of his family. They are led by Captain Thenault (Reno), a disciplined, spit-and-polished French commander who quickly finds his recruits can't speak the native tongue. The squadron's ace, Reed Cassidy (Henderson), serves as a mentor. His pet lion serves as nothing more than a curious distraction for a film trying too hard to inject a moment of levity.
The picture follows this band of recruits as we expect it to, taking us through basic training, the first mission, the mission after that, eventually leading to the climatic sky battle. Because the movie features no major stars, it's not shy about killing them off, a convenient way of dispelling predictions about the top of the credit roll surviving. But since love and war are joined at the hip in most war pictures, we have to get some romance in somewhere. Rawlings develops a crush on Lucienne (Jennifer Decker), a French country girl who bandages him up at a whorehouse after a crash. She is caring for three orphaned children, leaving her little time for any affairs of the heart until Rawlings tracks her down. Both of them struggle through the picture to understand each other's language, and how this love affair manages to blossom in spite of the language barrier is worthy of some kind of medal.
Flyboys' aerial battles seamlessly integrate digital and live action, with machine gun spray flying all over the place, bi-planes and Fokkers tailspinning. I haven't seen anything like this since 1927's Wings, one of the earliest Oscar winners, which still has excellent special effects. We don't have a Red Baron, but we do have a Black Falcon, a German ace so bloodthirsty he'll spray fighter pilots who land safely on the ground after bullets down the plane. Presumably, that's a violation of combat etiquette, but we learn the rulebook is going out the window. People and planes get shot up, dinged up, bandaged up, and then go back up for more.
As a war picture, the film contains plenty of heroics and arguable patriotism with a token "why-are-we-fighting" moment or two. Its characters are not drawn deep, and I didn't care a lot about them, except for maybe Rawlings because he was trying to get the girl. But I didn't really mind, since the combat is the star of the picture. We'll see if Flyboys becomes the paragon film for WWI aces as Top Gun did for F-14 pilots.
But as I said earlier, WWI is a few lines of history for many of us, especially compared to its more sinister companion, World War II. Perhaps it is because Hollywood has done exceptionally more to shape our vision of the latter, with films like The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan, From Here To Eternity, Schindler's List, The Bridge On The River Kwai, Patton, The Dirty Dozen, and a list of others. Beyond All Quiet On The Western Front and Gallipoli, we have few classic WWI movies, just as we have few classic Civil War or Revolutionary War films. Hollywood bloomed as WWII broke out, its good-vs-evil nature rife with stories, real or imagined, eventually adapted into screenplays and unspooled onto the screen for years to come. I am not sure if it is the war that defined the war picture genre, or the genre that defined the war.