Mutter Lafayette Escardrille to your friends and they’ll incorrectly associate the term with an entrée at a French restaurant, if anything at all. To World War I historians, the Lafayette Escardrille represents a small cadre of American pilots who fought bravely alongside the French in the world’s first warplanes before the United States even entered the war. Obscured by a larger war around them and then again by the more publicized and identifiable World War II, the Lafayette Escardrille were once long shot to be featured in a modern major Hollywood production nearly a century after their heroic missions came to an end.
Instead of relying on historically accurate depictions of the actual LaFayette Escardrille pilots, producer Dean Devlin and his writers created fictional caricatures of these men, the Flyboys, to fill the clichés expected from a big budget Hollywood production. James Franco, fresh off his newfound fame in Spider-Man, plays an iconic Texas rancher who has a problem with authority. Other stereotyped pilots include Lowry, a Harvard dropout desperately seeking acceptance from his rich father; a black boxer who can’t fly for Americans but can for the French; a mysterious kid who can’t shoot straight; a religious fanatic; an ace who is hell bent on shooting down the German who killed his friends; and a shaky coward yearning to prove his worth. Aside from Franco and perhaps Lowry, each of these fairly shallow characters is equally expendable and draws no emotion when their time comes to bite the bullet.
Developed to an even lesser extent are the Germans” whom have been rendered all but faceless, save for one central villain lucky enough to have a different colored plane and a name, The Black Falcon. This mysterious ace likes to taunt his prey before erasing their existence and is set up early on to be the benefactor of Franco’s bullets. There’s obviously an equally interesting story to be told from his and his fellow German pilots” perspective, and it’s a shame this angle of early aerial combat failed to fit within Hollywood’s war drama guidelines.
Much like in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, the combat has been dramatized with an overly operatic score and the latest CGI trickery and nauseating camera angles. A great deal of attention has gone into accurately recreating the look and movements of the early warplanes, right down to the extremely fragile canvas wings and knocking on jammed machine guns with a small hammer in mid-flight to un-jam them.
This detail is brilliantly reproduced in this 1080p MPEG-2 all-digital transfer that absolutely shines on Blu-ray. Whether by benefit of 50GB’s of disc space or otherwise, this film looks fantastic whether in large scope shots or intense close-ups of pilots faces in the thick of battle. Due to stylistic choices aiming for a more nostalgic sepia-toned presentation at times reminiscent of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the choice of digital cameras doesn’t quite match the sheer “wow” factor found in similarly shot Crank, but is breathtakingly gorgeous nonetheless.
Equally stunning is an impressive DTS-HD Master Lossless audio track. As imagined, aerial combat is explosive throughout the entire soundstage. I am most impressed by the localization of both flak (sadly, only one scene) and machine gun fire, which appear to dance around every corner of the room as the camera pans and rotates around the planes.
The writers” liberties with historical fact appear to run rampantly out of control if measured by the film alone. When combined with what I consider a mandatory viewing of Six Featurettes in 1080p video, there are far more parallel’s to actual historical figures and events than initially surmised. In particular, the “The Lafayette Escadrille” featurette shows how each character in the film was inspired by a real pilot from the time period. While the clichés are heavily played up for added drama, the base backgrounds and personalities are drawn from historical record. Additional featurettes offer a spoof with a German miniature stunt pilot, the story of the Lafayette Escadrille lion cub mascots Whiskey and Soda, a look at the special effects, and a ride with the cast and the Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels. Six Deleted Scenes are highlighted by Lowry’s rich father visiting his son in France presumably right before Lowry takes his last flight. An Aerial Guide Track works like a pop-up trivia track offering sparse technical aviation facts, and an Audio Commentary with director Tony Bill and Producer Dean Devlin takes the safe route with on-set stories, making-of facts and filmmaking decisions.
Flyboys literally bombed at the box office and thanks to the very over-dramatized and template elements that no doubt helped it earn a big budget, it will go down in the annals of misguided war films alongside Pearl Harbor. Putting the flaws aside, a neat history lesson comes alive by pairing the excellent featurettes and film, and the high definition presentation on Blu-ray Disc alone is more than worth your hard earned rental dollars.
– Dan Bradley