George Lucas planned “Red Tails,” the film he produced on World War II’s Tuskegee Airmen, with the best of intentions. But he begins this earnest, old-fashioned combat film with its worst scene. It’s a blast of video-game quality aerial combat, digitally rendered, blandly written, with maybe the worst sound effects and worst score (inappropriately modern, by Terrance Blanchard) Lucas has allowed since his days in film school.
It’s a body blow that this collection of corny cliches and stock movie “types” played by a very dull cast isn’t good enough to overcome.
The novel approach of this story — directed by Anthony Hemingway — is leaving out the formation of a “Negro” fighter pilot training program at Tuskegee Institute, to pick up their saga after they’ve endured Army indifference, racism and months of being assigned outdated P-40 fighter planes and rear echelon patrol duty on the Italian front.
But Col. Bullard, played with the usual choke-back-the-tears passion of Terrence Howard, is ready to argue down the hateful Col. Mortamus (Bryan Cranston, who has maybe two scenes) and get his swaggering fighter jocks into combat. Major Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is just chomping on his cliched briarwood pipe for that to happen.
The pilots and aircrew are a boring lot, played by a collection of callow actors (Nate Parker, Tristan Wild, Elijah Kelly, Marcus T. Paulk) and rappers turned actors (Ne Yo, Method Man). A better cast might have pulled off the “pilot who drinks” or “hot dog with a death wish” or religious kid who prays to “Black Jesus” in the cockpit. The situations on the ground are nothing new — racist confrontations in an officer’s club,, one guy falling in love with an Italian girl (Daniela Ruah).
And the dialogue is straight out of World War II movies made during World War II.
“How you like THAT, Mr. Hitler? I ain’t afraid of no jets!” “Let’s give those newspapers something to write about!”
To its credit, the film gets at the things that gave the Airmen their lasting fame — the odds and racism they overcame, leading to the integration of the armed forces, the civil rights movement and the integration of America. And the thing the group chose to hype as its calling card, its commitment to mission — protecting bombers — has real lump-in the-throat appeal. They won’t measure their success in the numbers o German fighters shot down, but on the bomber crews “who get to return home to their wives,” Col. Bullard says, choking up. “Forget the prize, save the lives.”
It’s such a good story that you wish it was better, that you wish you didn’t suspect Lucas of producing this to stave off the criticism he will face — again — for re-releasing “The Phantom Menace,” with its racially insensitive Jar Jar Binks, next month.
But the digital dogfights, after that first one that feels like screen captures from the “Blazing Angels” video game, are pretty good. Not good enough to lift this one out of the cornfield, but good enough to make us glad that we aren’t spending more time on the ground, drawling bad one-liners, chewing on pipes or taking nips from a whiskey flask.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sequences of war violence.
Cast: Nate Parker, Terrence Howard, Ne Yo, Cuba Gooding Jr.
Credits: Directed by Anthony Hemingway, written by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder. A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 2:05