Dir: Tony Bill. US. 2006.138mins.

Impressively staged and expansive in scope, World WarOne aviation feature Flyboys isrooted in the true story of those young American men who volunteered as fighterpilots for the French prior to their country's entry into the war. It alsosuccessfully captures how aeroplanes, these newinventions of the sky, were somewhat impulsively plugged into a vast warmachine, one that would eventually claim more than nine million livesworldwide. But its examination of aerial conflict does not negate the emotionalside of the war: this is a film that also delivers, in engaging fashion, anaccompanying ensemble tale of human drama and of legitimate heroism hatched,quite by necessity, from wry fatalism.

The independentlyfinanced $60m feature opens wide in the United States on September 22 and willneed strong word-of-mouth. With sympathetic older audiences potentially optingfor the star-laden All TheKing's Men, and younger crowds heading for Johnny Knoxville's Jackass sequel, it will have to workhard to make an impact. After all, the remake of The Great Raid, a similarly earnest and lengthy war flick alsostarring Flyboys lead James Franco, onlypulled in $10m domestically last year.

The good news isthat Flyboys has more crisplycaptured action than John Dahl's feature, and has a story and setting thatshould more naturally nourish western European box office. The presence of JeanReno in a key co-starring role will help the film especially in France andsurrounding environs, though ancillary revenue ' buoyed as it will be bygenerally positive word-of-mouth among war flick aficionados ' seems Flyboys' most likely source of breakingeven. As well done as it is in most respects, this is not a film thataggressively demands a theatrical experience.

In 1917, theAllied powers of France, Britain, Italy and others are on the ropes against theGerman war juggernaut. Key to the outcome of World War One is air supremacy,and it's here that some young Americans decide toapply themselves, volunteering to fight alongside their counterparts in France.They would become known as the Lafayette Escadrille. Their motivations aredifferent ' some are altruistic, others secretly escaping shame, criminalprosecution or some other burden. Regardless, Flyboys makes short work of its introductions.

Forced to abandonhis family's property after its foreclosure, Texas ranch-hand Blaine Rawlings(Franco) sees his future in a wartime newsreel chronicling the exploits ofyoung aviators. In Nebraska, William Jensen (Winchester) joins as an adventure,promising to make his family proud. New Yorker Briggs Lowry (Labine) is shamed into joining by his disciplinarianfather. Meanwhile, in France, black expatriate boxer Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis) joins up to pay a debt of gratitude to the racialtolerance of his adopted homeland.

The group comestogether under the command of French Captain Thenault(Reno), who advises them to do what their "conscience demands and courageallows." Any romantic notions of war are quickly dissipated, both by theramshackle reality of some of their equipment and the gruff mentorship ofveteran Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson), who flies extra missions searching forthe German pilot who shot down his friends.

In steadfastfashion, Flyboys charts the trainingof the young men, a sequence of escalating missions wherein they face off againstformidable German aggressors, and also Blaine's burgeoning love affair with alocal French girl, Lucienne (iridescent newcomerJennifer Decker).

It bears mentionthat director Tony Bill displays a nice touch with the multi-cultural flirtingherein. We've seen this sort of pidgin-languagedbloom in countless films before, but he captures the awkwardness of love'sfirst blossom and, indeed, the act of just trying to find and hold ontosomething decent in the face of so much carnage and bleakness.

While thecharacters are, to a large degree, stock archetypes, they are richly imbued byeach of the actors. Franco in particular ' unlike many of his leading man peers' seems almost naturally at home in period garb and posture.

Flyboys also avoids certain cliched, pat endings often found in moviesof its ilk. It is rather beautiful in its own way because it portrays inauthentic, face-value terms the reality of a lot of forged-in-wartimerelationships, which is to say intense and genuine, but necessarily of themoment, and not founded upon a more stable reality or normalcy.

The true draw of Flyboys, though, lies simply in the neatbalancing act between these personal stories and the bigger intrigues andplotting of a war picture, which it technically executes at a quite high level,especially considering the budget. Bill stages the action in such a manner thatone gets an effectively queasy sense of the conjoined thrill and fright ofopen-cockpit World War One dogfights ' combat where one could have eye-to-eyecontact with an enemy while thousands of feet above ground. A sequenceinvolving an attack on a German zeppelin, meanwhile, makes effective blendeduse of computer-generated imagery.

Even if it attimes relies on certain aural cliches, Trevor Rabin's score convincingly pointsup the sweeping emotionalism of the piece. The work of cinematographer HenryBraham (Bright Young Things, Nanny McPhee),meanwhile, is superlative, alternately capturing some of the drab, oppressiveweather of occupied France and the piercing sunlight of its high-flyingbattles.

Electric Entertainment
Skydance Productions
Elstree Film & Television Studios
Ingenious Film Partners
Ingenious Entertainment

US distribution

International sales
Voltage Pictures

David Brown
James Clayton
Phillip M Goldfarb
Duncan Reid

Dean Devlin
Marc Frydman

Phil Sears & Blake T Evans
David S Ward

Henry Braham

Production design
Charles Wood

Chris Blunden
Ron Rosen

Trevor Rabin

Main cast
James Franco
Martin Henderson
Jean Reno
Abdul Salis
Jennifer Decker
Tyler Labine
Philip Winchester
David Ellison