If memory serves, this new one is better.Directed by the actor and producer Tony Bill with some corn, much visual flair and suitable French panache, it stars James Franco as lead Yank (well, from Texas) in an engaging bunch of biplane pilots. The Germans favor triplanes, big virility birds including a black one flown by a killer (Gunnar Winbergh) who is, of course, the necessary Grinning Hun.
But the Americans include a veteran ace (Martin Henderson) who has a pet lion. And then there's a wannabe "knight" riddled by bad nerves, and a pudgy rich man's son determined to prove his stuff, and even a black boxer turned pilot (appealing Abdul Salis) who wants to be "up there alone, where nobody can see my color."
OK, so a story based on real people takes flighty liberties. They include some improbable heroics on the ground, twist-and-turn aeronautics that may defy gravity too deftly, and some clearly digital effects imposed over paintings. But they're swell effects and darn fine landscape paintings.
And then there are good uniforms, manly drinking after missions, choke-up emotions, spill-your-guts crises. Tony Bill doesn't mind going for old-time satisfactions. He revels in them, and as firm pillar relies on Jean Reno, the Frenchman who makes suavity a form of charm, as Capt. Thenault, French officer in charge but always human in the crunch.
This is long before recent history came between us and the French. And the French are impressively represented not just by Reno but by Jennifer Decker as Lucienne, adorable country lass and fleur de la nation.
Naturally, she falls for boyish but increasingly proven Rawlings (Franco). Franco takes to France. He's more likable and at ease than he has been in earlier films. A modest irony is that, having come to fame as TV's "James Dean" in 2001, Franco is now in World War I - Dean's big starring debut, "East of Eden," took place in the WWI era (though not in the war).
Franco has shucked obvious Deanisms and his own, lean appeal comes through clearly, above all with the romantic Decker. Of course, the movie mainly appeals to viewers who need "dogfights," noble deaths and burning Huns. It could stir the blood of the 13-year-old boy in anyone.
An MGM release. Director: Tony Bill. Writer: Phil Sears, Blake T. Evans, David S. Ward. Cast: James Franco, Philip Winchester, Jean Reno, Martin Henderson, Jennifer Decker, Abdul Salis. Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes. Rated PG-13. 3 stars.