Like those crime-solving psychics who can't help hallucinating the murder scene while handling the victim's personal effects, it's impossible to watch Flyboys without experiencing vivid flashbacks of its conception: a sunlit office, a rapt studio head, producer Dean Devlin dropping his high-concept humdinger on the man with the money--"Top Gun . . . with biplanes." Sold! Someone writes a check, and now we're treated to the tale of bad boy Blaine Rawlings (James Franco) and how he's run out of Texas all the way to the French front, where Capt. Thenault (Jean Reno) is putting together his squadron of aces: klutzy Eddie (David Ellison), military son Jensen (Phillip Winchester), rich boy Briggs (Tyler Labine), Negro expatriate Eugene (Abdul Salis), plus veteran pilot Cassidy (Martin Henderson), the hard-drinking cynic with a deus ex machina tendency to pipe up with an all-knowing motive for anyone's untoward behavior. Franco, who will never carry James Dean's melody no matter how much he studies the sheet music, still cleans up good, rides a horse convincingly, and romances a pretty French girl (Jennifer Decker) with sigh-inducing chivalry. And the dogfight sequences are genuinely thrilling, in a wooden roller coaster kind of way. Flyboys may be pure pudding, but it's never boring, and it almost--almost--makes it all the way to the end without embarrassing itself. If all goes well at the box office, soon we can thrill to a Model T Days of Thunder, or The Matrix on an ENIAC.