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High-altitude action saves 'Flyboys'

Remember ``Hell's Angels," the World War I dogfight movie that Howard Hughes was obsessed with in ``The Aviator"? They've effectively remade it as ``Flyboys," a high-altitude epic that repackages every aerial cliche in the playbook for an audience coming to them for the first time.

The movie's straightforward and ingratiating, and as pretty-boy history lessons go, it's a lot less obnoxious than ``Pearl Harbor." Still, you may wish they'd found some storytelling inspiration to match the onscreen gung-ho.

Purporting to tell the true story of the Lafayette Escadrille , the squadron of American volunteers who flew for the French during the early days of WWI (before the United States entered the war), ``Flyboys" hammers just enough tent pegs into the truth to build a believable encampment. For one thing, there actually were two tame lions who served as the squadron's mascots (the film merges them into one), and Eugene Skinner, the African-American flier played by Abdul Salis, is based on Eugene Bullard, history's first black military pilot.

Skinner is one of the crowd in ``Flyboys," and his squadron mates include the film's designated hunk, Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), a Texas boy looking for action after his farm forecloses; Jensen (Philip Winchester), a kid from a military family who has to come to grips with his fear; Beagle (David Ellison), a daredevil with a shady past; rich snob Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine); and Higgins (Christien Anholt), who's flying for the Lord. They're overseen by Captain Thenault (Jean Reno, who else?) and guided by Cassidy (Martin Henderson), a grizzled, cynical ace who has parachuted in from an old Howard Hawks movie.

``Flyboys" tells its tale as if proceeding by the Stations of the Flying Cross: There's the training sequence, the initial flights, the confrontation with a lethal German flier named the Black Falcon (Gunner Winbergh). A certain Corporal Lunchmeat (not his real name) is sacrificed to illustrate the dastardliness of the Hun. Blaine crashes into a provincial bordello and encounters the lovely Lucienne (Jennifer Decker), who -- Dieu merci -- is only dropping off fromage for the hard - working ladies. (Except for Cassidy, who has obviously read his Hemingway, none of our boys deigns to dally.)

All this is old, old stuff that has been handsomely filmed with attention to period detail; only the freshly scrubbed modernity of the cast -- the one thing that stands to put the film over with younger audiences -- rings false. The love scenes between Franco and Decker feel like kids playing dress-up; if you're looking for a recent WWI movie that conveys the passions and devastations of the era, rent 2004's ``A Very Long Engagement."

In any event, a flyboy movie exists for its flying sequences, and once it gets aloft, ``Flyboys" is reasonably ripping. Combining actual aerial footage and computer-generated special effects, the scenes have the dramatic crackle that's lacking on the ground, and the inclusion of deadly webs of CGI tracer-fire adds a new dimension to the swoops and rollovers and Immelmanns . I'll let the aviation-history wonks parse the realism of the bi planes; on action terms, the movie succeeds.

It succeeds so well that you spend the last 10 minutes hoping the screenwriters and director Tony Bill won't honor cliche a final time and have one character come in for a final shot of glory. They do, of course. What are the guns of Germany against all the stereotypes Hollywood can muster?

Ty Burr can be reached at

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