Exec producer George Lucas spent 23 years developing “Red Tails,” a glossed-up B picture about the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, but even without the long delay the project took to reach the screen, the result would have felt old-fashioned. Apart from the occasional thrill provided by CG-enhanced aerial dogfights, this stuffy history lesson about the groundbreaking African-American fighter pilot division never quite takes off, weighed down by wooden characters and leaden screenwriting. Commercially speaking, while the subject and minority-led cast should be selling points to appreciative black auds, the pic’s limiting factor will be its overly square execution.
Though overseen by Lucas, “Red Tails” marks the feature debut of director Anthony Hemingway, an experienced TV helmer who counts episodes of “The Wire” and “Treme” among his many credits. Here, the scale is larger but the narrative opportunities more limited, boxed in by the two-hour running time. Thus, the ensemble is limited primarily to personality traits established in the film’s opening minutes, with most of the attention split between by-the-book college boy Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker, carrying himself like a young Denzel Washington), who serves as squad leader, and daredevil best friend Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo, who can’t help mugging for the camera).
The film opens midair, as a scarred German pilot (Lars van Riesen) leads an attack on a fleet of U.S. Army bombers. The American fighters have been trained for the kill, leaving the larger craft they’re escorting vulnerable as they zip off to pursue the Nazi attackers. What the military needs are pilots who can put personal glory aside to protect the bombers, giving the Tuskegee flyers a chance to prove their worth, at the likely expense of their own lives — suggesting the potential for dramatic sacrifice displayed by the all-black regiment in “Glory.”
But instead of emphasizing the casualties suffered by the 332nd Fighter Group (66 deaths in all, of which only two are depicted), “Red Tails” celebrates the team’s collective heroism. If a 1925 U.S. Army survey found that so-called “colored personnel” were “unfit for military service,” the film demonstrates how the 332nd proved otherwise on the strength of its achievements, drawing inspiration from John B. Holway’s book “Red Tails, Black Wings: The Men of America’s Black Air Force” (the title refers to the planes’ signature markings).
Time and again the film conveys how racist bureaucrats intended the experiment to fail at a time when segregation was the norm. Though the U.S. Army Air Corps trained nearly 1,000 black pilots in Tuskegee, Ala., once in the field, the military equipped them with rundown planes and assigned them low-profile missions far behind enemy lines (seamless visual effects allow the Prague-based shoot to simulate Italian locations). Despite such setbacks, Lightning is itching for combat, frequently disobeying orders whenever the chance to score an enemy kill arises, as in a neat singlehanded showdown between him and a German supply train early in the film.
These airborne scenes are frequently dazzling, cutting between the cockpits of the various pilots (a la “Star Wars”) and the broader canvas against which fancy loops and spins take place. Still, for all their visual polish, such maneuvers lack the thrill of practical stuntwork.
By sheer coincidence, Paramount recently restored William Wellman’s 1927 Oscar winner “Wings,” whose aerial acrobatics set the gold standard for such sequences on film. “Red Tails,” by contrast, feels as if it were shot against greenscreens and rendered on an elaborate videogame engine, one that knows to gild every cloud with rosy pink edges and supply the appropriate roaring-engine effects to create the illusion of flight. With such an approach, the characters become secondary; a far more effective strategy might have been to tell a compelling, personality-driven story that just so happened to take place among the Tuskegee Airmen. In fact, an earlier HBO telepic did better with the human-interest material, even if it lacked Lucas’ tools for high-flying action sequences.
Leading a cast of lesser-known black actors, the film’s two biggest stars, Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr., play officers angling to book a mission significant enough for the 332nd to distinguish itself, but that limits their dramatic potential to terse meetings with military brass (including a crotchety Bryan Cranston). What the film needs are actors with charisma in the air and enough unfinished business on the ground that it matters whether they land safely.