THE TEMPTING thing to say about producer David Puttnam's "Memphis Belle" is that it's "Chariots of Fire" with wings.
That's because it is "Chariots" with wings: American World War II pilots in bomber jackets instead of British athletes in running togs. It's also "Chariots" with waves, little post-'80s waves atop the coiffed heads of boy-flyers Eric Stoltz, D. B. Sweeney, Sean Astin, jazz musician Harry Connick Jr. and others.
The hunkalescents are the American crew members of the Memphis Belle, a B-17 Flying Fortress that has undertaken 24 successful missions. When the movie opens, right in the thick of the war, the "flyboys" are about to embark from England on their 25th and final mission. If they come back alive, public-relations officer John Lithgow is going to make them heroes back home. They'll also be the first crew in the 8th Air Force to complete their tour of duty without seriously mussing their hair.
Director Michael Caton-Jones, who brought an enlivening touch to his debut production, "Scandal," glides his way through the familiar "Twelve O'Clock High" fare with businesslike efficiency. With the assistance of technical advisers, he has also created a strong sense for the period. You get a poignant sense of what it took to fly a B-17 through unfriendly skies, as well as the frenetic duties of everyone aboard, from captain to ball-turret gunner.
But Monte Merrick's script is an unspectacular, cliche-riddled voyage from start to finish, with everyone lugging their own tote-bags of facile character idiosyncrasies. Duty-bound flight skipper Matthew Modine is determined to make this bombing raid a success and get back alive to his gal at home. Sweeney's the excitable one, convinced this mission will be fatal. Stoltz is the sensitive one -- and for God's sake, make sure you don't listen to his poetry. Astin is "Rascal," the ladies man who's seen a lot of non-flight action, while Reed Edward Diamond, whose nickname is "Virge," has seen none. Courtney Gains is superstitious about his St. Anthony medallion. Connick, naturally enough, is the group's musician and you know, sooner or later, he's going to sing.
Which he does, in a band-backed rendition of "Danny Boy," a piece of traditional music that scorer George Fenton proceeds to reprise repeatedly for the rest of the movie. It becomes the film's driving anthem and, clearly, producer Puttnam's transparent attempt to reproduce what the "Chariots" music theme did for him at Oscar time.
Of course, everyone will face their respective weaknesses or realize their particular yearnings -- you saw "The Wizard of Oz." In "Memphis," Virge will earn the right to ditch his nickname, Gains will lose, then recover that lost medallion, Sweeney the wimp will get his surge of onflight bravery . . .
Actually, the award for bravery must go to Modine. Although his performance is not particularly noteworthy, he leads a crew of male models through a dangerous bombing mission over Germany and that takes guts.
MEMPHIS BELLE (PG-13) -- Area theaters.