Here it is, folks. Just what we need in these troubled times of international political mayhem: a "based-on-fact" film about a handful of patriotic Americans who decide to, you know, fight for what's right. So when World War I erupted in Europe, off they went, to fly and maybe die.

But wait a moment ... this takes place early in 1917, well before the Yanks entered the fray. These guys, for various reasons (running from the cops, tired of being a boxer, sent by a strict father), have headed to France to fight for the French. Or maybe they just want to learn how to operate one of those newfangled contraptions called airplanes and become flying doughboys: the first fighter pilots.

And so it's on to the Lafayette Escadrille, a countryside base where they'll train for two months, then take to the skies to duke it out with those nasty Germans. It's here that a Texas rancher, the ever-scowling Blaine Rawlings (played by the ever-scowling James Franco) reports, shortly after beating up the banker who was foreclosing on his family's property.

Flyboys starts with a lighthearted approach to its backstories, training sessions, and growing camaraderie among the fledgling pilots, but then quickly turns to clich & eacute;. And never strays very far away.

Meet Captain Thenault (Jean Reno), who's tough, rugged, by-the-book and --wouldn't you just know it -- owner of a soft, mushy heart. Or how about veteran flier Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson): moody, mysterious, holds his cards close to his vest, keeps a lion as a pet. And let's not forget the German flyboys. If you're up there learning to grit your teeth just right for the most effective close-up while you're blasting your double machine guns, you'd better watch out for a couple of very special flying enemies: the German who lets you go ... once, and the one who shows no mercy whatsoever. Those guys can't wait to put more notches on their wings.

There are some junctures in the film, usually when bullets are flying and planes are dodging, that achieve some big-time excitement. But they are few, mainly because most of the air sequences are just too carefully planned out, too CGI-heavy, too choreographed. When the skies get really crowded with red and black planes, you can squint your eyes and pretend that you're watching a vicious battle between black and red flying ants. But when you open them wide, it comes across more as an example of lighter-than-air synchronized swimming.

Yet over and over, those crazy American boys keep flipping their propellers on, tightening their goggles and flying off to their destinies. All it takes is someone back at the Escadrille yelling out, "They spotted a group of Fokkers!" or "A German zeppelin is on its way to bomb Paris!"

When said zep does make its appearance, some spectacular visuals follow. But they're almost deflated when the camera slooowwly pans across the huge airship and the filmmakers pretend that they've invented a clever shot, never hiding for a second that they're copping directly from George Lucas' opening sequence in Star Wars.

More than just a scene falls flat when the film introduces Lucienne (Jennifer Decker), the lovely French lass for whom our hero (that would be the ever-scowling Rawlings) falls hard. As a result, the whole movie suffers. Here are the dilemmas: There's a language barrier, but that's OK, she'll just learn how to speak English from a book. There are three little moppet orphans she's raising, but hey, they dig the guy with the plane. Even worse, the film also borrows liberally from the scene in the first Christopher Reeve Superman, when the Man of Steel gives Lois Lane a nighttime ride in his arms. This time it's done in a plane, in daylight -- but at its core, it's the same scene. There's absolutely no need for any of these characters -- the "love interest" and the kids -- to be in the film other than to make it marginally chick-flickable.

What we need is more discussions of racism (yup, there's a token black guy in the squadron) or a little more talk about the futility of war (a little liquor goes a long philosophical way for these guys). Instead, the backstories just keep coming. James Franco really cuts loose and smiles (twice), and somehow Lucienne's English becomes just short of impeccable. But then Flyboys is accustomed to flying right past plausibility.

Rated PG-13
Directed by Tony Bill
Starring James Franco, Jean Reno, Jennifer Decker

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