Red Tails - David Oyelowo
Joe 'Lightning' Little (David Oyelowo) is the most skilled but also the most reckless pilot in World War II's Tuskegee Airmen combat unit © 2012 Lucasfilm Ltd

Executive producer George Lucas wanted to make a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-black US aerial combat unit, for 23 years. So why he approved having this film’s John (Three Kings) Ridley screenplay punched up by Boondocks cartoonist Aaron McGruder, handed the reins to first-time feature director Anthony Hemingway and loaded much of the cast with inadequate actors is a real mystery. Maybe he was too busy supervising the 3-D conversion of Jar Jar Binks for the re-release of The Phantom Menace to give this project the attention and respect it deserved.

The most aggravating thing wrong with Red Tails is the fact that this “inspired by true events” story, set in Italy during World War II, is made up entirely of fictional characters. The Tuskegee Airmen made history by overcoming racism and displaying medal-worthy conduct, so you’d think at least a few dozen of the real-life pilots would be worthy of big-screen glory. Instead, Red Tails subsitutes a group of embarrassingly two-dimensional constructs — each with a colorful nickname, of course — who are more gung-ho hokey than human.

Among them are Captain Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), who has a self-destructive drinking problem but never seems so much as tipsy. Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo) is a ladies man who becomes inexplicably marriage-minded within days of courting a non-English-speaking Italian signorina named Sofia (Daniela Ruah), who oddly catches no flak from her mother, neighbors or other potential would-be suitors for dating a black American. Mush-mouthed Andrew “Smokey” Salem (Ne-Yo) is the unit’s designated guitar player. David “Deacon” Watkins (Marcus T Paulk) constantly praises and prays to his own personal “black Jesus.” And the double-nicknamed Ray “Junior”/”Ray Gun” Gannon (Tristan Wilds) is an eager-to-please fellow whose unlikely good-luck piece is a Buck Rogers XZ-38 disintegrator pistol.

Red Tails - Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr
Colonel AJ Bullard (Terrence Howard) and Major Emmanuel Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr) are in charge of America's first all-black aerial combat unit © 2012 Lucasfilm Ltd

Colonel AJ Bullard (Terrence Howard) and Major Emmanuel Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr) are more grounded, literally and figuratively, than the flyweight flyboys they supervise. Bullard is the dignified hardass who goes to bat for his underestimated 332nd at the Pentagon, demanding “you shut us down or you let us fly!” He encounters entrenched intolerance personified by a villainously bigoted fellow colonel (Bryan Cranston).

The movie’s other main flaw is that it is too insultingly shallow about its subject matter for a 2012 war movie. There’s a single cliché scene in which a character says he worries about dying every time he closes his plane’s canopy, but the moral consequences of killing never arise — even after the Tuskegee pilots escort 100 Flying Fortresses to bomb a city. Bear in mind that this is a group of guys who ask God’s help in a prayer huddle before takeoff.

Even 1,600 visual effects shots supervised by Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic can’t keep the movie as a whole from seeming made-for-TV cheap. The far more combat-experienced Nazis mostly seem incapable of hitting the broad side of a barn, while Our Boys are so superheroically proficient they even manage to shoot down a quartet of German jets using far slower propellor planes. The dogfights are sometimes incomprehensibly directed, intercut with ambience-free shots of pilots emoting unconvincingly in their cockpits. Lucas himself did a better job making this kind of thing exciting 35 years ago, when it was Luke Skywalker in an X-Wing Starfighter doing the fancy flying.

The pilots’ success on increasingly difficult missions gains the respect of their white counterparts, with only a single meaningful death among the group. Also, including a side trip to Stalag 18 for one shot-down airman, and his subsequent searchlights-in-the-snow prison break, is definitely one overused genre plot point too many.

The real Tuskegee Airmen deserved a better, truer and more thoughtful telling of their story.

[Rating: 1 star]

Red Tails is released in theaters Friday January 20, 2012

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.