Though it tries hard, “Red Tails” never becomes an updated “Glory” with wings.
“Glory” was the stirring 1989 film based on a true story about a group of black Union soldiers during the Civil War who battled prejudice both inside and out of the Army. (Denzel Washington won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role.)
“Red Tails,” produced by George Lucas and directed by feature first-timer Anthony Hemingway (TV’s “The Wire,” “Treme” and “CSI: NY”), is about the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of black Army pilots who served with distinction in Europe during World War II despite facing multiple roadblocks caused by racial prejudice. (The title derives from the fact that the tails of their planes were painted a bright red.)
The story of the Tuskegee airmen and the hurdles they encountered is certainly one worth putting up on the big screen. Sadly, “Red Tails” tells its inspiring story in the most old-fashioned, Saturday-afternoon-at-the-movies kind of way. The movie occasionally flies but it never soars.
In showing how the Tuskegee Airmen finally earned the right to fly combat missions — it was felt by the brass that African-American pilots weren’t up to the task–and distinguished themselves once they did, “Red Tails” falls back on all the usual bomber crew film clichés.
When Hollywood was cranking out WWII movies with regularity, every bomber crew had one of each: a rural yokel, an urban wise guy, a scared young kid, the angry guy, various ethnic types, etc. In “Red Tails,” the featured pilots may all be black, but they’re still a mixed bag featuring a one-note one of each: the pilot who secretly drinks, the hotshot who takes too many risks, the joker, the religious guy and … well, you get the idea.
Despite the weaknesses in the screenplay of this long-gestating project — Lucas wanted to make the movie for at least two decades — there are still moments that will stir an audience. These come primarily from two actors: Terence Howard, who plays a colonel who stubbornly takes on his superiors at the Pentagon to enable the airmen to fly meaningful missions, and David Oyelowo, as an ace pilot who gently courts a non-English speaking beauty from the Italian town near the airmen’s base.
There are also plenty of action-filled aerial battle scenes but they soon develop a monotonous, repetitive rhythm, alternating between CGI shots of planes attacking each other and going down in flames, and interior cockpit shots featuring pilots looking either stressed or exultant. Such sameness eventually lessens the bark of these dogfights.
In the end, “Red Tails” is like the old, patched together B-40s its pilots are stuck flying early in the movie. It can still do the job, but you just know that there should have been a better-built and sleeker model out there.