James Franco, center, with Martin Henderson, left, and David Ellison in Flyboys.
Dear James Franco Fan Club,
I am writing to inform whom it may concern that I resign. I quit. I will no longer participate in club functions, pay club dues, or supply my usual veggie tray for the annual club picnic. I myself am as surprised by my decision as anyone, given that I never officially joined the James Franco Fan Club to begin with.
Perhaps if you write about movies, involuntary membership in these things is an occupational hazard - like "Star Wars" nit-pickers and animated films about wisecracking squirrels. The supply is seemingly endless (and somehow I find myself intimate with each and every example). But as I sat through the relentless war-movie schmaltz of "Flyboys," the nine millionth earnest, good-looking, and instantly forgettable drama to star that B-level James Dean known as actor James Franco, I realized a man has a limit, and if Franco in "Annapolis" wasn't it, Franco in "Flyboys" was ...
Flyboys, however, was the first Franco movie - after The Great Raid and Tristan + Isolde, among others - in which I realized I'd been unwittingly forced into the movies of a guy no one was dying to see. I also noticed there's a unifying aesthetic to these second-tier also-rans starring Franco. And you know, it's a really annoying unifying aesthetic. For one thing, every film he's in takes place at dawn or sunset, or it seems that way.
Not that Franco has anything to do with the film he stars in; he is not a writer, director, producer, or boom operator. The man is an actor for hire (and if he hadn't lucked into the Spider-Man franchise, we probably wouldn't even be having this conversation).
Yet somehow Flyboys is of a piece with his previous work, as if he were starring in a kind of made-for-TV-movie series just for him. He plays Rawlings, a roughneck who joins the Lafayette Escadrille, the young American volunteers who flew for the French military during World War I while Woodrow Wilson kept America out of the Great War as long as he could. Great idea for a story. We're due for a decent dogfight movie (the last great one, Wings, won the first best-picture Oscar - in 1927).
But like other Franco films, Flyboys gazes long into his brooding posturing and sees it as invitation for relentless dewy, old-fashioned sincerity, only more so: Rawlings takes the role of the strong, silent type among a squadron of war movie cliches, including the wealthy jerk, the probable coward, the kid from Nebraska, and the hothead who doesn't get close to anyone (lost too many old friends that way).
There's the threat of their nemesis, the Red Baro- (cough), I mean the Black Falcon. There's sacrifice, and the stab of prejudice; a black flier, an ex-pat who feels more at home in France than in the United States, teaches everyone about racism. On the ground, there's the love of a cute French girl; and of course, there's singing down at the rowdy chateau bar, where cognac is swilled for fallen fellow flyboys.
If Flyboys breaks tradition at all, it's that it's a WWI flick that isn't about the senselessness of war. Having found the one romantic aspect of a landmark better known for its gas attacks and trench warfare, the details, sprinkled in nicely by director Tony Bill, become more absorbing than the plot: It was canvas stretched across the bodies of those planes (which offered no protection from bullets); in lieu of a parachute, pilots carried a pistol - to shoot themselves.
As for the dogfights themselves - what marks a Franco movie is how a major chunk will come off cheap, and here it's the CGI-digital battles among triplanes and biplanes and zeppelins, which should be thundering (and occasionally are) but look so computer-generated, the effect pulls you out of 1916 and throws you into 2006. There's beauty in some of the images, but without a script that has a point of view, and with a score that swells with every ray of sunlight, it's too much and not enough - all at the same time...
And so, in summation, that said, I quit. Until next year: It says here on IMDB.com, James Franco has six movies coming in 2007 alone. Though by then hopefully I will be swilling in a French tavern, where it's safe. The French never latch on to a second-rate talent.