For me, the worst sin a film can commit is not to be bad, but rather to be banal. Unfortunately, 'Flyboys' is just such a movie. It's good-looking, filled with impressive effects, attractively cast... and a total snoozefest. It's a bit depressing, really. Here's a film that was obviously well-intentioned, and made with great care and passion. The filmmakers wanted to craft a grand, old-fashioned "movie movie" for teenage moviegoers -- an audience that has long been under-served with vulgar teen comedies and cynical torture flicks. So it is all the more disappointing that 'Flyboys' just doesn't gel.
Loosely "inspired by" real events, the subject matter seems apt for a fictionalized retelling. Though World War I began in Europe in 1914, it was not until 1917 that the United States entered the conflict. Our country's delayed support led a small number of young American men to to fight for the Allied powers by joining France's Lafayette Escadrille fighter squadron -- despite the fact that the average life expectancy for a pilot at the time was only three to six weeks. Why did these Americans volunteer to face certain death when their own country hadn't even joined the war? According to 'Flyboys,' idealism wasn't the real reason, but instead depressed economic and class status. Blaine Rawlings (James Franco) enlists because he was forced to leave his home in Arizona after a bank foreclosure. Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine), practically disowned by his rich father, is shamed into signing up. Only African-American boxer Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), born in the States but long living in more tolerant France, wants to give something back to his new country. Under the command of French Captain Georges Thenault (Jean Reno) and American Squadron Leader Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson), they will be among the world's first fighter pilots, risking their lives to usher in a new era of military might.
What's disappointing about 'Flyboys' is it takes this little-known chapter in American military history and wastes it in the name of rote melodrama. Sort of a 'Dead Poet's Society' in the air, only not nearly as compelling, the script meanders as it explores the petty back stories and personal struggles of its characters, instead of focusing in on what makes them truly fascinating and unique. Did we really need all the bland squabbling between Lowry and his dad, who is portrayed as the kind of grotesque father figure caricature we've seen in a million other movies? Must we be subjected to Franco making mushy eyes at the pretty local girl (Ruth Bradley), even though their romance has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie? And Skinner is so one-dimensional in his nobility that, as written, the character panders to the worst kind of cinematic political "balance" that it demeans the intelligence of the target audience. 'Flyboys' was clearly made for teenagers, but it doesn't seem to understand them enough to realize that no kid in 2006 needs to be spoon-fed a stack of cliches that are already painfully transparent.
'Flyboys' also represents the latest in what's become a career tailspin for James Franco. He's a good actor, if perhaps hampered by his intense good looks. I know it's a cliche, but the guy really is a cross between James Dean and Montgomery Clift. Too bad that aside from a supporting role in the 'Spider-Man' flicks, he's been stuck in lousy movies, with three bombs alone in 2006 -- 'Flyboys,' 'Annapolis' and 'Tristan + Isolde.' The characters he's been stuck playing are an apt metaphor for 'Flyboys' itself -- handsome but hollow. In the end, there are far worse teen-oriented movies than 'Flyboys,' but given the film's lofty goals (and its reported $60 million budget), it's hard not to label this one a disappointment.
'Flyboys' looks terrific -- fantastic, even. I guess I wasn't expecting much of anything with this one, having heard little about the movie since its disappointing box office run last fall. But picture quality-wise, the $60 million production budget seems to have paid dividends. 'Flyboys' was shot entirely with digital cameras, and the result is luminous, entrancing visuals that consistently dazzle. Say what you want about the film, but just about every frame of 'Flyboys' is the epitome of elegance and class.
Presented in 2.40:1 widescreen and 1080p/MPEG-2, the source has obviously been tweaked but looks surprisingly film-like. Nice and clean, with rich blacks and excellent pop across the entire grayscale, this is the rare transfer of a new release that looks both modern and classical. Colors are a bit unique, with a heavy use of deep cyan and sunflower yellows, plus lush natural greens and a splash of red. The effect is quite lovely, with well-saturated hues that remain rock solid and smooth. Sometimes high contrast looks a bit whited-out, though this appears purposeful and doesn't drain colors too much. Fleshtones remain accurate throughout. Detail and depth are also very impressive, with the sharpest outdoor scenes delivering breathtaking, three-dimensional high-def.
Note that the transfer can be a bit inconsistent at times. There seems to be an extensive use of rear-projection blue-screen photography, which is noticeably softer than the rest of the picture. Nighttime scenes and some interiors are also bit flattened-out in the midrange. But these appear to be intentional stylistic decisions, so I can't fault the transfer much for that. All in all, I was really surprised by 'Flyboys.' Excellent stuff!
The DTS HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 surround track is also a winner. The sound design of 'Flyboys' is lively, engaging and immersive. The battle scenes almost never slow down, with the climactic dogfight strong enough that, yes, I would pull this one out when I need some top-notch demo material.
Most impressive is the pinpoint accuracy of discrete effects. Machine guns rattle from the rears, explosions fill all channels, and the film's golden-hued score has a very nice sense of uplift. Granted, the soundtrack feels "constructed," and sometimes a bit too modern and slick for a film about rugged, clunky bi-planes. But no matter, it's fun to listen to, especially at a decent volume. Dynamics also excel, with palpable realism to the sound, forceful low bass and expert dialogue reproduction that's always front and center in the mix.
The only aspect dragging 'Flyboys' down a notch aurally is that non-action-heavy scenes are too front-loaded, lacking decent atmosphere. The mix would have been a lot more effective had it been more consistently enveloping. Nonetheless, 'Flyboys' delivers the goods far more often than not.
This disc continues to impress with the depth of its supplemental content. It also marks a first for MGM, in that it has any extras at all (although as we recently reported, the studio continues to lag behind on its upcoming catalog titles, which remain barren of goodies). And while I'm not sure that a box office bomb of 'Flyboy's magnitude really warrants such lavish treatment, here is a case where the extras actually outshine the content of the movie. I learned more from the supplements about the real-life story behind 'Flyboys' than the film taught me, and with all of the video-based supplements presented in full 1080p video, they look great, too. .
First up is a quintet of featurettes, though together they are really a full-length, 62-minute documentary divided into six parts: "Real Heroes: the Lafayette Escadrille" (26 minutes), "The Diary of a Miniature Stunt Pilot" (8 minutes), "Whiskey and Soda: The Lion Mascots" (5 minutes), "The Real Planes of 'Flyboys'" (9 minutes), "Taking Flight: The Making of the Aerial Battle Sequences" (11 minutes) and "The Flyboys Ride with the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy Blue Angels" (5 minutes). MGM has wisely included a "Play All" feature, which is the preferred way to view the material. Everything is covered by the doc -- from a good twenty minutes just on the real-life back story behind the movie and the extensive research that went into re-creating the film's period detail, to an extensive look at the special effects and the airborne training the cast underwent in preparing for their roles. Though we get the usual interviews with the filmmakers, particularly director Tony Bill and producer Dean Devlin, their comments are a cut above, as they are quite well-spoken and insightful. It almost made me sad that the film didn't do better. My only complaint is that the cast seems severely underrepresented, especially James Franco. (Note also that much of the visual effects on-set footage was shot 4:3, but it is still presented here pillarboxed and encoded at 1080p.)
Paired with such a fine doc, the audio commentary with Bill and Devlin feels a bit redundant. Most of the basics of the film's background and special effects are covered by the doc (and with more visual interest), so I did find myself drifting a bit during this track. Bill also goes gets so detailed in his discussion of the effects and use of CGI to "extend" the sets and locations that it all starts to feel a bit cold and impersonal. Thankfully, things do pick up a bit later on, with more on the casting and the interpersonal relationships between the characters. It also becomes clear the commentary was recorded before the film came (and went) at the box office, as no mention is made of any reaction to the film. Ultimately, I just enjoyed the documentary material better.
Also included are a collection of six Deleted Scenes. Oddly, though the readout reveals a 1080p source, the material is cropped down to a 16:9 ratio (versus the feature's 2.40:1) and the quality is noticeably inferior. The scenes themselves are forgettable, with only a couple of bits involving a lion at all amusing. Certainly, these scenes could have used some optional commentary from Bill and Devlin, as there is no context to make the material very interesting.
'Flyboys' is a well-meaning, handsomely mounted production that nevertheless fails to soar. I admired the lavish visuals and the passion of the filmmakers, even though the story just doesn't come together. This Blu-ray release, however, does not disappoint. The video and audio are great, and for me, the extras were more entertaining and informative than the flick itself. So if nothing else, 'Flyboys' is attractive enough to at least rate a rental.