There have been plenty of gung-ho, formulaic movies about white World War II pilots, so perhaps it should come as no great surprise that the first major Hollywood production focusing on African-American flyboys should fall into the same pattern. (There was a 1995 TV movie on the subject, as well as a 2002 documentary.) But the Tuskegee Airmen are true national heroes, and it’s unfortunate that “Red Tails” should prove such a hokey collection of war movie cliches.
The airmen, of course, were a wartime pilot project—if you’ll forgive the pun—to test the ability of black fliers in the face of prejudice among both the general public and Pentagon bigwigs. As the picture opens, the segregated squadron has been assigned the lowly task of patrolling the skies over Italy in old second-hand planes, but after demonstrating uncommon valor and skill, they’re transferred to provide support for bombers heading into Germany. Unlike the white pilots formerly assigned that task, they actually stick with the big planes rather than rushing off to chase stray German aircraft, and in doing so show their mettle and earn the respect of the brass and of the bomber crews.
The exploits of the Tuskegee force were in fact impressive, and one can imagine a powerful, compelling drama being crafted from them. But this isn’t it. The script by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder plays as though the two had been watching entirely too many war movies of the forties and fifties. Some of the events portrayed here might well have happened, but as depicted it’s hard to believe they actually occurred. It also focuses on a relatively small number of pilots—a necessity, to be sure. What’s not necessary, however, is to make them such stereotypes.
The problem begins at the top. Terrence Howard plays Col. Bullard, the tough but fair commander of the squadron, who’s inevitably referred to as “the Old Man.” He fights for his men in Washington against the forces of bigotry, getting them more demanding missions and new planes. His second in command, Maj. Stance, is played by Cuba Gooding, Jr., who bites down on the stem of the obligatory pipe as he smiles at the men’s foibles or furrows his brows awaiting their return from combat.
As for the pilots, two take center stage. One, the squad leader Mary “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), worries about his leadership ability and drinks to camouflage his insecurity. His best buddy is the squadron hotshot, Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo), a motormouth who takes reckless chances in the air but gets the job done better than anyone else. He’s also a ladies’ man who becomes romantically involved with Sophia (Daniela Ruan), a beautiful Italian girl—which leads not only to some clunky humor with her mother but inevitable tragedy. Among the other members of the group are the young guy who loves to fly and gets back in the air even after he’s severely injured, only to crash and become the only black POW in a lily-white stalag; the cynic; the jovially religious guy who hopes his faith in “black Jesus” will save him; and other fellows who can be pigeonholed just as easily.
The banter that passes among these guys, both on the ground and in the skies, is the sort of juvenile stuff that John Wayne, Ward Bond and their cohorts might have indulged in a half-century ago. The script might not actually have been written by George Lucas, who produced, but it sounds as retro as the dialogue he composed for “Star Wars.” And the CGI-dominated dogfight action is as muddled and ill-defined as usual in such fare, and accompanied by banal crew communications (“There’s one on your tail!” “I can’t shake him!” “Don’t worry, I’m coming! Hold on!”).
Under the circumstances the cast, though game, can only go with the flow. Parker exudes virility, and Oyelowo tries hard to be charismatic, but they’re hamstrung by the cliches. All the rest—most notably Ne-Yo (Smokey), Tristan Wilds (Junior), Marcus T. Paulk (Deke) and Elijah Kelley (Joker)—push their stock characters to the limit. The malady extends even to Bryan Cranston, who overplays a Pentagon bigot badly even though the part’s just a cameo.
Directed by Anthony Hemingway as heavy-handedly as it’s written and shot with old-fashioned slickness rather than grit by John B. Aronson, “Red Tails” is a disappointment, a comic-book version of a historic moment in American racial history that’s deserving of far better treatment.