The Tuskegee Airmen, a group of World War II fighter pilots trained in Tuskegee, Ala., were American’s first African-American military aviators. Overcoming formidable racial barriers in the segregated military, they were eventually recognized as some of the war’s best pilots.
Producer George Lucas brings their rousing story to the screen in “Red Tails” with a solid, mostly all-black cast of relatively unknown actors and slam-bang, realistic-looking sequences of high-flying dogfight action.
The airmen proudly painted the tails of their airplanes red to announce themselves to their foes, later appropriating Red Tails as their own unofficial name.
The struggles faced by these real-life war heroes, who fought the Army’s then prevailing view that black soldiers were “inferior” in every way to white soldiers, is mirrored somewhat in the opposition encountered by the movie’s superstar producer in getting the project off the ground. Lucas spent nearly $100 million of his own money to make and market the movie after being turned down by every major studio, all of which doubted that mainstream audiences would flock to a “black” film with no major white stars.
Providing a promising opening weekend, moviegoers may well prove Lucas’ gamble right. But despite its high aim, “Red Tails” never quite becomes the movie monument its inspiring subject deserves. It’s “Top Gun” meets “Glory,” but lacking either of those two movies’ pep, pop, star power or production values.
It’s awash in war-movie clichés and saddled with a predictable script that sends its one-dimensional character stereotypes (the steely officer, the greenhorn, the reckless daredevil, the boozehound squad leader, the doomed loverboy) rambling around a meandering, melodramatic plot.
“The Wire,” makes his big-screen directorial debut, but he seems stuck in television mode, unable to unfurl his dramatic banner into longer, bigger movie proportions. And for a loaded story about such a racially explosive chapter in U.S. military history, it’s surprisingly soft where you’d expect to find jagged edges.
Terence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. play the Red Tails’ commanding officers, standing up to the white Army brass (Brian Cranston of TV’s “Breaking Bad” and Gerald McRaney) that doesn’t think their squadron is up to the job.
The fight scenes are the movie’s strong points, using a seamless combination of computer-generated effects and live action to convey a sense of both the danger and the excitement of aerial combat—and the cramped, claustrophobic, sometimes deadly confines of WWII fighter-plane cockpits.
“From the last plane, to the last bullet, to the last minute, to the last man…” the Red Tails chant in unison before taking flight, “we fight! We fight! We fight!”
The real-life Tuskegee Airmen fought, flew and soared in more ways than one. Too bad this movie about them doesn’t quite rise to the same level.