If George Lucas can make his “Star Wars” pictures in the mode of the 1930s cliffhanger serials, then he can surely make “Red Tails” as a foursquare, old-fashioned 1940s fighter-pilot picture.
Which is pretty much how this movie plays. Lucas, as executive producer, balances out action with corn in this resolute film, which tells of the combat experience of the Tuskegee Airmen.
We join the famous all-black unit when its pilots are already stationed in Italy, consigned to mop-up duty well behind the front lines. The movie, written by John Ridley and “Boondocks” cartoonist Aaron McGruder, pulls no punches in stating that the top brass had no confidence in the abilities of black pilots to be involved in real combat.
Most of “Red Tails” is taken up with the unit’s dogged efforts to prove itself. We meet the guys, sort out their personality traits, see a few scenes from life on the base. To its credit, the movie never pretends that racial prejudice isn’t a big part of life for the airmen, whether it takes the form of taunting by bullies or the condescension of military bigwigs stateside.
The pilots tend to fall into basic platoon-movie roles: the cool leader (Nate Parker) with a secret booze problem, the hotshot (David Oyelowo, excellent) with an eye for local romance, the youngster (Tristan Wilds) with something to prove, the cut-up (the funny Ne-Yo), and so on.
Much of the dialogue has that painful tin-ear quality that George Lucas can’t seem to edit out; apparently neither could director Anthony Hemingway, who worked on the series “Treme.” The actors, happily, are able to put most of this stuff across.
In fact, the younger actors fare better than the two established names, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Terrence Howard, who play the superior officers of the squadron. Neither taps into the period in a credible way.
“Red Tails” has its heart in the right place, and the story is a good one.
The movie feels rushed at times, skipping along to the next thing without quite letting moments sink in, as though it actually wanted to be a miniseries — which the true saga of the Tuskegee airmen warrants.
The film mostly operates at a TV-movie level, but no expense has been spared in the digital effects, which include vistas of war zones and zooming dogfights. Whether you think that’s a good thing will depend on your threshold for the slick unreality of that style; for me, it got in the way of the otherwise analog 1940s story.
“Red Tails,” 2 1/2 stars
A very old-fashioned (except for the wide use of digital effects) account of the Tuskegee Airmen and their combat duty in Italy during World War II, when the pilots were not only fighting the Nazis but also the doubts of the U.S. military that black soldiers were up to the task. The characters are stock but the younger actors are a spirited group, and the movie makes its historical points without pulling any punches.
Rated: PG-13, for violence, language
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Meridian, Woodinville, Blue Fox, Cascade Mall.