The United States and France have a long history as political allies, but over the past few years, France has increasingly come to be seen as America's cultural antagonist. In Talladega Nights, France even fills in for the former Soviet Union as the nation that incites automatic contempt from flag-waving, God-fearing, proudly xenophobic Americans. But anyone expecting much in the way of raucous, fish-out-of-water culture-clash comedy in Flyboys—an earnest new drama about American pilots who volunteer to fight on the French side during World War I—is bound to be disappointed, as is anyone expecting anything beyond a blandly proficient war movie. Even the relative novelty of Americans fighting for France before their own country enters the war turns out not to be much of a factor, since the pilots interact mostly with each other. Outside of trips to the whorehouse, generic protagonist James Franco's obligatory romance with a pretty French girl, and the incorrigibly French Jean Reno's presence as a stern but fair officer, the pilots might as well just be flying for the United States.
Franco brings his lean good looks and aw-shucks grin to the lead role of a cocky pilot who volunteers for the Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of American pilots each largely defined by a single characteristic: there's the fat guy, the Bible-thumper, the mysterious pilot with a shadowy past, and the black guy. Flyboys follows these cardboard heroes from green recruits to battle-hardened warriors of the sky, stopping regularly for big speeches and sequences in which Franco and his chief German adversary fly within spitting distance of each other and exchange deeply meaningful/vaguely homoerotic looks.
Like the World War II drama The Great Raid—which also wasted Franco—there's something almost perversely old-fashioned about Flyboys. It's as if director Tony Bill simply fished out a mothballed script from 1947 and filmed it without updating it for contemporary audiences. Flyboys would do a perfectly adequate job filling out the second-half of a mid-century matinee, but today it feels underwhelming. Scenes that should soar instead come off as afterthoughts, and the steady stream of American deaths generate little but indifferent shrugs. If Franco's goal in life is to star in serviceable vehicles about both World Wars, mission accomplished.