There are, apparently, 97 "Biggles" novels, dear to the hearts of the British, which follow the exploits of fictional World War I flying ace James Bigglesworth and his great chums Algy, Bertie and Ginger.
I cannot swear that the books, the work of Capt. W. E. Johns, whip their hero back and forth from past to present, but "Biggles--Adventures in Time" (selected theaters) certainly does, at an exhausting clip and with no special panache.
Screenwriters Kent Walwin and John Groves--Capt. Johns doesn't even get a nod in the press notes--have set the film's framework in today's New York. There, Jim Ferguson (Alex Hyde-White, son of Wilfred Hyde-White), an amiable young American businessman, is trying to launch what looks like a very nasty frozen dinner line--Celebrity Meals.
They barely have a chance to thaw before the astonished Ferguson's fingertips tingle with special-effects lightning bolts and he is zip-zapped into the thick of World War I, cheek by jowl with the daring Biggles. That infinitely frayed device, "a hole in time," soon has Ferguson slipping back and forth from then to now with the regularity of a Channel ferry, as Biggles and buddies work frantically to locate a fiendish German secret weapon.
British-born director John Hough has done a dozen or more films (including "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" and "Triumphs of a Man Called Horse") but it is his memorable television success, "The Avengers," that should be closest in wit and irony to "Biggles." The fact that it's not is only one of the disappointments of the film, which is depth-charged with disappointment.
Certainly Hough has assembled good actors, including the elegant Peter Cushing (known best to American audiences as "Star Wars' " evil Grand Moff Tarkin) who plays the mysterious Col. Raymond, and a pair of extraordinarily handsome and adept young leading men, Hyde-White and Neil Dickson, who plays Biggles.
But with a cheesy plot, the world's worst and most intrusive music and time travel giving everyone whiplash, there's no time to savor the present or the past, or the incongruities of one seen by the other. The closest "Biggles" comes is its best action sequence, as the dastardly German ace's biplane is buzzed by our heroes in a helicopter, but the amazement of such a stunt is muted.
"Biggles" (rated PG) was reportedly shown at a command performance before the British Royal Family, which should give American audiences new respect for the royals' pluck and gallantry in the face of ennui.