Those who complain that they don't make movies the way they used to should take a look at ``Memphis Belle.'
This account of the last flight over Nazi Germany by the most famous B-17 bomber in World War II is the kind of heroic adventure Hollywood has been turning out for years. It has many of the ingredients that made such films as ``Dawn Patrol,' ``12 O'Clock High' and ``30 Seconds Over Tokyo' so memorable. And it is bolstered by up-to-the-minute special effects that help to create an incredible sense of reality.It also has some - but not too many - of the cliches that inevitably wind up in such stories.
In the earlier films, Errol Flynn, Gregory Peck or Spencer Tracy headlined a cast of familiar faces. But most of the men who make up the crew of the ``Memphis Belle' aren't well known.
Matthew Modine (``Pacific Heights') is Capt. Dennis Dearborn, the soft-spoken pilot who must take the plane and its crew on their 25th and final bombing mission from England to Germany. Eric Stoltz (``Mask') is Danny Daly, the Irish-American radio operator who writes poetry in his spare time. The ball-turret gunner is Richard ``Rascal' Moore, a teenage ladies' man, played by Sean Astin (the son of Patty Duke and John Astin who appeared in ``War of the Roses').
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Jazz pianist and singer Harry Connick Jr. makes his screen debut as tail gunner Clay Busby. Tate Donovan (``Clean and Sober') is co-pilot Luke Sinclair.
D.B. Sweeney (``Eight Men Out') is navigator Phil Rosenthal, who is convinced he will not survive the mission. Billy Zane (``Dead Calm') is Val Kozlowski, the swaggering bombardier whose cool countenance masks a secret.
The brass is represented by David Strathairn (``Eight Men Out') as the commanding officer and John Lithgow (``Terms of Endearment') as Col. Bruce Derringer, the public relations officer. Derringer plans to take the crew members of the ``Memphis Belle' back home for a nationwide bond-selling tour when their tour of duty is completed.
One of the biggest challenges that faced director Michael Caton-Jones (``Scandal') was establishing a clear, individual indentity for each member of the crew. He has to do it before they climb aboard, because once they don the Air Force gear, they all look the same.
The introduction is partly handled by voice-over narration. It's the middle of May in 1943 and the guys are playing a rough-and-tumble game of football near the hangars. As the camera moves in, Derringer announces each name and adds a descriptive word or two.
It's the usual cross-section found in such groupings: the well-educated one and the high school dropout; the shy, quiet one and the loud-mouthed braggart; the sophisticated one and the innocent one. Each has his moment to shine.
At the dance before the bombing raid, Moore competes with top turret gunner Virgil (Reed Edward Diamond) for the attentions of a British woman. Virgil wins her with his description of a chain of hamburger stands he plans to establish when the war is over.
When Derringer's bluster puts a momentary pall on the proceedings, Busby livens things up with a jazzy rendition of ``Danny Boy.'
It makes such an impression, we can be sure we'll hear it again. And we do, much later, high in the enemy skies, when crescendos accompany the airfight between the lumbering B-17s and the wasp-like German fighters.
Screenwriter Monte Merrick (``Staying Together') follows the accepted format so closely we can't help speculating on which young men will - or won't - return from the final raid. There's no question the plane survives, since the script is based on fact. The original ``Memphis Belle' is on permanent display in Memphis, Tenn.
In spite of the familiar storyline, there are many truly terrifying moments during the bombing raid. As in all good adventure tales, these moments are leavened with a touch of comedy.
The acting is first-rate except for Strathairn, who seems a bit wooden, and Lithgow, who is a bit overdone. Blame the first on the script and the second on the director.
``Memphis Belle' is weakest when it's on the ground. In air, it evokes a breathtaking, almost forgotten, image of power, vulnerability and - most of all - pride.