Best known for small-scale tearjerkers like SIX WEEKS (1982) and UNTAMED HEART (1993), actor-turned-director Tony Bill's first theatrical feature in more than a decade is an old-fashioned WWI aerial drama in which CGI spectacle trumps story at every turn.
1916: The U.S. hasn't yet entered WWI, and aviation is still a novelty, but young Americans are making their way overseas to serve in the fabled Lafayette Escadrille, a corps of foreign fighter pilots based in France. Blaine Rawlings (James Franco) flees his small Texas hometown after assaulting the banker who foreclosed on the family ranch; idealistic William Jensen (Philip Winchester) signs up to honor his family's history of distinguished military service; disaffected rich boy Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine) is shamed into joining by his socially prominent father; a sense of moral obligation drives deeply religious Dewitt Porter (Barry McGee); Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), who fled American racism for a career boxing in Paris, wants to repay the country that's treated him so much better than his own; and quiet Midwesterner Eddie Beagle (stunt flyer David Ellison, whose father, software entrepreneur Larry Ellison, invested heavily in the film) has his own secret reasons for joining, which almost get him shot as a spy. Only one of these young men — Skinner — speaks a word of French, and none realizes how grim his chances are until Escadrille veteran Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson) points out that the average lifespan of a military flyer is six weeks. Placed under the command of Captain Georges Thenault (Jean Reno), they learn first to fly and then to fight, before going up against their better-equipped German counterparts and finding out what they're made of.
Producer Dean Devlin invested 16 years and his own money in the project, and Tony Bill is a pilot and aviation buff, so it's clear there was a significant labor-of-love factor involved in bringing this film to fruition. But no cliche goes unturned in the wooden script concocted by veteran screenwriter David S. Ward and newcomers Phil Sears and Blake Evans (best known as a television cinematographer), and the largely bloodless carnage and talk of cynical disillusionment carry no emotional weight. And while the aerial dogfights are handsome and apparently historically accurate, right down to the tracer bullets that leave graceful, crisscrossing trails in the clouds, they have a video-game feel that renders them far less viscerally effective than similar sequences in Howard Hughes' groundbreaking HELL'S ANGELS (1930). leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh