In "Red Tails," the famed Tuskegee Airmen get the John Wayne-style heroic rendering they very much deserve, but in a hackneyed and weirdly context-less story that does them a disservice.
Long a pet project of his, George Lucas self-financed the film and has said he hopes "Red Tails" will prove there's an audience for all-black movies. That's a laudable goal, but "Red Tails" reduces a historical story of deep cultural significance to merely a flyboy flick.
Instead of creating something authentic and new, "Red Tails" superimposes the tale of the black World War II pilots on a dated, white genre of 1940s patriotic propaganda. "Red Tails" is blatantly old-fashioned, just with a change in color.
In medias res hardly says it: "Red Tails" opens in the midst of an aerial dog fight while the credits are still rolling. Director Anthony Hemingway plunges right into the action, skipping all that pesky backstory of black men braving the segregation of Jim Crowe America and, against the odds, rising up at the Tuskegee Institute.
That history was stressed in an earlier 1995 HBO film, "The Tuskegee Airmen," which benefited from Laurence Fishburne's sturdy presence. A co-star from that movie, Cuba Gooding Jr., is here, too, as the pipe-chomping Maj. Emanuelle Stance. The other higher-up with him is Col. A.J. Bullard, played with unnatural speech by Terrence Howard, whose smooth voice fails to find the register of a commander.
The film is centered, though, on the pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group, which earned the nickname of Red Tails from the painted ends of their P-47 fighters. These first black military aviators in the U.S. armed forces flew more than 150,000 sorties over Europe and North Africa during WWII, often escorting Allied bombers. Sixty-six were killed in action.
Their bravery helped persuade President Harry S. Truman to desegregate the military in 1948. Some 300 of them are still alive, and most, by invitation, attended President Barack Obama's inauguration.
Our group of thinly sketched pilots all come with clichÉ nicknames: Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo), Marty "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker), Ray "Junior" Gannon (Tristan Wilds), Andrew "Smoky" Salem (Ne-Yo), Maurice "Bumps" Wilson (Michael B. Jordan) and Samuel "Joker" George (Elijah Kelly).
The brash, talented Lightning (who at one point is actually referred to as "the best damned pilot we've got") and the alcoholic captain Easy are at the film's core, which is buoyed by a warm feeling of camaraderie among the pilots. Lightning also pursues and finds romance with a local beauty (Daniela Ruah) near their Italian base.
Hemingway is a TV veteran best known for his work with David Simon on "The Wire" and "Treme." One of the pleasures of "Red Tails" is seeing familiar "Wire" actors on the big screen, including Wilds, Jordan and Andre Royo, who plays a mechanic. Surely, theater etiquette allows for the exception of shouting out "Bubbles!" at the first glimpse of Royo.
The biggest flaw here is the corny script by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, the Boondocks cartoonist. There's a fine, swaggering vibe, but a curious hesitance to really tell the Tuskegee story. Half of their two-front war (at home and in battle) goes largely without depiction, except for one or two minor scrapes with racist officers. Neither is any hint given to the less than rapturous welcoming the men would get on their return home.
The whole thing is unrealistically sunny, both literally and metaphorically. The skies are always bright blue (better for highlighting the digital trickery) and hardly anyone dies. Though this is film about one of the most violent clashes in history, little seems at risk. The racist generals (Bryan Cranston makes a cameo as one) are back in Washington and the free, Italian base is a happy world away from the segregated U.S. The German fighters are cartoonishly evil.
But ever since "Star Wars," Lucas and his Industrial Light and Magic effects house have always specialized in aerial combat — and "Red Tails" is no exception. The dogfights are elegant and clearly staged, set against a majestic European landscape.
"Red Tails" might smother the Tuskegee Airmen in the tropes of old Hollywood, but there's still inspiration to be found in seeing those tropes acted out with goodwill and fresh faces.
"Red Tails," a 20 Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence. Running time: 125 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.