The forgotten films of James Franco

James Franco’s performance in 127 Hours was rightly praised, but what of his earlier, less prominent roles? Ti takes a look back…

James Franco has just been nominated for Best Actor for his role as Aron Ralston in 127 Hours, a film for which he is receiving high praise. Not just that, but he’s co-hosting the Academy Awards ceremony (alongside Anne Hathaway) and is rapidly becoming Hollywood’s leading man of choice, thanks to his comedic and dramatic acting chops.

He will soon be seen in Your Highness (“Handle your shit, Fabius, please.”) and Rise Of The Apes, all while finishing a PhD in English Literature at Yale.

Clearly, his star wattage is at its zenith, but it wasn’t always so.

Fresh off his success as Harry Osborn in the Spider-man movies, Franco was cast as the lead in a number of films, many of which failed spectacularly at the box office and were met with critical indifference. However, I really enjoyed three of these four films (I never saw Annapolis) and wish to big up the forgotten films of a fine actor.

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Now, there is a pattern I have noticed with certain actors. They get an early hit and receive the attention of major studios, who then cast them in a number of smaller films, which set to establish them as a leading man before hitting the big time with a latter film. In hindsight, these smaller, cult films are often met with general apathy, both by the actor and audiences in general, but have quite a strong cult following.

Take Christian Bale. Hit the big time with American Psycho and was then cast as the lead in the likes of Shaft, Reign Of Fire and Equilibrium, films that have a small appreciation, but generally not from Bale himself. He then hit the big time, of course, with Batman Begins (or The Machinist).

For James Franco, the films I enjoyed, own and feel are unfairly ignored are the following: The Great Raid, Tristan & Isolde and Flyboys! High concept, low budget, ‘cult’ films that I feel deserve more attention.

So, here is my chance to bring them to a wider potential audience…

The Great Raid (2005)

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For me, this is one of the best war films of recent years and no-one saw it. It tells the story of a group of Rangers who are sent to save 500 American soldiers from a POW camp in Manila, as the Japanese are executing prisoners as they fall back.

More of an ensemble film, Franco stars as the Rangers’ lead strategist and planner, Captain Prince. He does a good job, but as the cast features the likes of Benjamin Bratt, Joseph Fiennes, Connie Nielsen, Craig McLachlan (of Neighbours and Bugs fame), Marton Csokas, Dale Dye and a pre-Avatar Sam Worthington, Franco’s not the sole focus of the film. Plus, he’s more bookish than usual, which is a surprise.

Out of these three films, this would be the one I recommend the most. Shot relatively cheaply, it looks amazing and it’s nice to see a modern day war film where you can see the action and what’s happening. This is even the case during night scenes, something that some of the battles in the $200 million Pacific series failed to do. 

Tristan & Isolde (2006)

I love any films with swords and breastplates, especially when they’re directed by Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, Count Of Monte Cristo) or Ridley Scott. So, with the Scott brothers producing this and Reynolds directing, my ticket was assured.

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The film tells the legend of Tristan and Isolde, but grounds it a more realistic, earthy world, where England (a divided island nation) is at war with Ireland. Tristan (Franco) is the adoptive son of King Marke (Rufus Sewell), one of the leaders of the many tribes of England, who falls in love with Isolde, the daughter of the Irish king. Unfortunately, she is to be wed to King Marke ,so as to keep peace between the two countries, and Tristan is forced to choose between love and honour.

This is, as you can imagine, is pretty melodramatic stuff, and while the love story is core to the film, it does not solely feel like a romance, especially not with warring barons, Irish ambushes and tournaments to win wives. Clearly, the filmmakers know what male audiences want: swords and death!

Franco brings the same anger and angst that he put to such good use in Spider-man to the role of Tristan and is very impressive in the fight scenes as well as staring bitterly at happy couples. However, the more romantic scenes are rather awkward.

Although the film drags in places, it is a decent film and one that did not deserve to flop as badly as it did in the States.

If you’re looking for a film filled with forbidden love, swordplay, treachery, guile and greed, give it a look. Mark Strong, Henry Cavill, Sophie Myles and Dexter Fletcher also star.

Flyboys (2006)

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Like Tristan & Isolde, Flyboys bombed hard in the US and it really shouldn’t have. Essentially Top Gun in biplanes, Flyboys is a cliché-ridden, silly but highly entertaining film.

Unlike recent war films, it forgoes the old ‘war is hell’ theme to provide a classic Boy’s Own War film, making war feel like it was in Biggles books and The Great Escape, kind of fun. Of course, we all know that war is not fun and is hell on earth, but sometimes you just need a good old adventure film and Flyboys is exactly that. 

Released in 2007, in a summer full of sequels, Flyboys was refreshing in that it portrayed something we hadn’t seen on the big screen for a while: World War I.  These days, there are very few films about The Great War, and even fewer with biplanes attacking zeppelins and, personally, it’s something I’d like to see more often.

Of course, it doesn’t feature the most realistic dogfights in the world, but, heck, it’s fun and stunning to look at.

In a summer where Spiderman 3 cost $250 million, it was Flyboys that made my jaw hit the ground with the quality of the effects and innovation in the dog fighting scenes. They were simply stunning. Forget Sandman. You can’t beat the sight of a dozen ‘Huns’ coming out of the sun and engaging an Allied air squadron.

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Oh, and Franco. Yeah, he’s okay as Rawlings, the ‘maverick’ of the Lafayette Escadrille, but it’s really Martin Henderson who’s the star of the film as Cassidy, the veteran of the war who’s seen friends come and go and is simply out to deal out his own brand of justice in the air. Give it a look. Methinks you’ll be surprised.

So, there we go. Three films that James Franco may have forgotten about, but for this writer are worth recommending. Sure, people will look at their box office figures and immediately write them off as crap, but it’s nice to see how diverse Franco’s roles have been over the years, from Spider-man to Milk and The Pineapple Express to 127 Hours. It’s always good to have a wide ranging CV.

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