There's nothing wrong with making an old-fashioned, John Wayne-style war movie, and goodness knows the Tuskegee airmen, pioneer black fighter pilots, are long overdue for a film that gives proper attention and respect to their struggles and accomplishments. But though it's tempting to root for Red Tails based on its intentions alone, I fear it would be similar to clapping extra loud for the handicapped child at the little league game, a celebration of effort over execution.
As producer George Lucas' dream project for more than two decades, much has been made of Hollywood's reluctance to support the World War II action drama because of its all-black cast. Lucas says he wanted to make a rousing comic-book adventure that inspired teens to learn more about the men who made history as the U.S. military's first African-American aviators. What's hard to reconcile, however, is how Red Tail's long gestation period resulted in such shoddy scripting and clunky filmmaking.
Chronicling the heroic efforts of the "all-Negro" 332nd Fighter Group, the Red Tails (named for the markings on their planes) battled Nazis in the sky and racism on the ground. Stationed in Italy, Marty "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker) and Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo) are childhood friends who long for missions that go beyond the occasional potshot at German transport vehicles. Easy is the by-the-book leader with a drinking problem. Lightning is the insubordinate hotshot who takes too many risks. Together, they lead a squadron of uncomplicated stereotypes. Meanwhile, their commanding officers —Terrence Howard and pipe-chomping Cuba Gooding Jr. — battle against a bigoted military that seeks to keep them off the front line. When the 332nd is finally given the chance to fight against Hitler's flying aces, the fliers not only kick ass, they earn the admiration of top brass. Soon the Red Tails are flying escort on bomber runs and winning friends among the soldiers they protect.
While the cast is solid, John Ridley and Aaron McGruder's script is so awkward and unfocused and all but Howard struggle to overcome its stilted dialogue and underdeveloped characters. Director Anthony Hemingway lurches from one clichéd episode to the next, providing little dramatic rhythm and a frustratingly disjointed sense of pace. A romance goes from "Buon giorno" to "I love you" in minutes, plot turns are telegraphed with lumbering obviousness, and every moment of tragedy is quickly tossed aside for the next plot distraction.
Where Red Tails ultimately takes off is when the planes take off — which is, thankfully, fairly often. We watch more than a half-dozen well-executed dogfights; fighters dive and roll, their pilots bantering with cornball gusto. From an opening attack on a German transport train to the final duel with superior jet fighters, Red Tails makes good use of its modest budget. Unfortunately, the digital effects and aerial choreography, though sometimes exciting, feel wrong for the period. A "cut the chatter" line seems primed to follow with "Red Two," as the P-51s swoop and soar like X-Wing fighters. And with little connection to the characters inside their cockpits, many of the fights lack stakes.
I really wanted to like Red Tails. And I have no doubt George Lucas' heart is in the right place. But the African-American war heroes he seeks to honor deserve a better movie.>