LOS ANGELES — "Red Tails," in theaters this weekend, is about the first black fighter pilots in the United States: the Tuskegee Airmen who finally saw battle in the skies over Europe during World War II. It's a story that's very much worth telling; the film itself, however, is hokey and old-fashioned.
Still, it's a good opportunity to take a look at five movies about airplanes that really do soar:
— "Airplane!" (1980): Not just one of the best airplane movies ever, not just one of the best comedies ever. This is one of my absolute favorite movies ever, regardless of genre. When the LA Film Critics Association asked its members to fill out a questionnaire and choose one movie everyone should see, I didn't pick "Citizen Kane." I picked this. It's a dead-on spoof of all those 1970s "Airport" disaster movies, the one to which all subsequent parodies have aspired. The tone is so perfect, the cast is so great, and the script is so jammed with classic lines. And while the whole exercise is completely silly, "Airplane!" is also very precise in its language, in the details within the sight gags. This kind of comedy is really hard to do just right without going overboard; the writing-directing team of Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker found that balance.
— "Wings" (1927): This was the first film to win the Academy Award for best picture and the only silent film ever to achieve that honor. A restored print of "Wings" recently was shown to a packed house at the Motion Picture Academy with live organ accompaniment, and it was a huge treat to see it in that setting. This tale of World War I fighter pilots, starring Charles Rogers, Richard Arlen and an insanely adorable Clara Bow, was at the time the most expensive movie Paramount had ever made. The budget was set at $1.2 million but it ballooned to $2.1 million. Director William Wellman insisted that his actors take flying lessons so the aerial scenes would look more realistic, and to this day they remain thrilling. "Wings" is also notable for the presence of a young Gary Cooper, although he's only in it for about two minutes; Arlen's Boston terrier gets more screen time.
— "United 93" (2006): Paul Greengrass' reenactment of the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, which crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers foiled the terrorist plot, sounded like a daunting prospect. We know all too well how it's going to end long before it begins, and his documentary-style realism would surely add to the agony. But it is that very realism and Greengrass' respectful attention to detail that make it impossible not to feel engrossed with every fiber in your being. "United 93" provokes a rare physical reaction: It makes your muscles tense up, makes you sit straight-backed in your seat, digging your nails into the armrests. Many films purport themselves, in blurb-friendly verbiage, to be edge-of-your-seat thrillers. This one really is.
— "Top Gun" (1986): This is the 1980s in film form: all the bombast and patriotism, all the big hair and shoulder pads, with Tom Cruise at the height of his powers playing a fighter pilot named — in all seriousness — Maverick. Cruise was still young and sexy back then, and "Top Gun" wasn't exactly subtle in celebrating his cocky, brash screen persona. Or as his superior puts it in scolding him: "Son, your ego is writing checks your body can't cash." Cruise, Anthony Edwards and Val Kilmer play students at an elite flying academy. Cruise wins over his instructor (Kelly McGillis) by getting an entire bar to sing "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" to her. It's big and cheesy and totally irresistible.
— "North by Northwest" (1959): This is a cheat, I will acknowledge that. But the crop-duster scene is so iconic that when I think of movies about airplanes, I think of this. It isn't just one of the most famous scenes in an Alfred Hitchcock film, it's one of the most famous scenes in film history, period. Cary Grant, a victim of mistaken identity who finds himself wrongly accused of murder, goes on the run. In his hunt for clues to the mystery he's gotten himself tangled in, he winds up on a rural highway in the middle of nowhere, where he's repeatedly buzzed by an armed crop-dusting plane. Decades later, this sequence remains chilling, with the menacing whirr of the plane's engine and the crunch of Grant's feet desperately pounding the dirt providing an increasingly tense rhythm.
Think of any other examples? Share them with AP Movie Critic Christy Lemire through Twitter: http://twitter.com/christylemire.