It’s been 13 years since Tony Bill (My Bodyguard, A Home of Our Own) directed a feature film but with this latest effort maybe he should remain in the motion picture world. Here he steers the true life story of the Lafayette Escadrille, a group of young American boys who volunteer to fight for France during the early stages of World War I. Instead of the flashy, cocky pilots that often fill so many high in the sky films, here these young unassuming Yankees fill the not so friendly skies as they seek adventure, escape or just to fight for the cause. In fact, they come knowing little, if anything, about flying.
The young men enlist for a variety of reasons: Blaine Rawlings (James Franco) needs to find his purpose in life, Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine) joins at the insistence of his rich, disciplinarian father, while African-American expatriate boxer Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis) wishes to support the country his new racially tolerant country. Jean Reno leads the flyboys as French Captain Thenault who instills courage, leadership and honor in their mission to help slow down the German juggernaut.
Bill and writers Phil Sears and Blake T. Evans waste no time moving the boys through ground training, air training, flying solos, target practice and the like. The training almost happens too quickly so when they get airborne into their first combat they thoroughly get their butts whipped. Slowly but surely the newbie pilots make their mark by downing more German pilots each mission.
With the film taking place in France where would the story be without one of the pilots falling for a nice French country girl? It would be a lot less romantic. Don’t look for any steamy French sex scenes here as the tone simply remains playful with Rawlings and Lucienne (Jennifer Decker) working to overcome the language barrier.
Unlike other air based battle films, this romantic side story doesn’t clog the momentum. Bill keeps that momentum going through the numerous air battles. Not normally known as an action director Bill keeps the action at a high tempo without resorting to cheap explosions (sans one), fancy jump cuts or a raucous soundtrack that has cheapened other action fly films. The dogfights display a realistic edge as Bill brings a sort of code of honor to the battles in the skies. Here the pilots in these newly invented flying machines act like hawks circling each other and trying to outmaneuver the enemy while protecting their company.
Although some squadron members seem to just appear from nowhere, while others have only cardboard backgrounds the film gives most of the flyboys just enough personality to keep the audience invested. Some people would be happy with only the aerial battles but this isn’t Top Gun or Black Hawk Down. It’s a WWI aerial film that feels much more down to earth. No flash. No glitz. Some hints of romance and grit add to the flavor. Bill makes creates a film realistic enough to entertain action fans while adding the right touch of characters and relationships to make it a few notches above the usual Hollywood flyboy action dreck.