- Rated PG-13
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All photos © 20th Century Fox
he last person that you would expect to have any trouble getting a movie made is George Lucas, but that’s exactly what happened with his World War II passion project “Red Tails,” which was stuck in development hell for the past 20 years. It wasn’t until fairly recently that Lucas decided to just finance the movie himself, but now that it’s finally opening in theaters, he might be regretting that decision. Although the story of the Tuskegee Airmen – the first African-American squadron of military pilots – is one that deserves the big screen treatment, “Red Tails” is littered with so many problems (from the hokey dialogue, to the cardboard characters, to the terrible pacing) that it does a real disservice to this important piece of history.
The year is 1944, and as World War II rages on, the Tuskegee Airmen have still yet to see any combat action, instead relegated to shooting up enemy trucks in the backlines. With the program in danger of being shut down, Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) makes a last-ditch plea to his commanding officer to give his men a chance to fight for their country and prove their worth to the war effort. The film centers on a small group of pilots within the 332nd Fighter Group – including leader Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), arrogant ace Joe “Lighting” Little (David Oyelowo) and youngster Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds) – as they earn the respect of their white brothers-in-arms by putting the lives of others ahead of their own to safely transport U.S. bomber planes from Italy to Berlin.
Unfortunately, anyone hoping to actually learn something about the Tuskegee Airmen beyond their time spent as bomber escorts will be sadly disappointed, because “Red Tails” is more interested in entertaining the audience than giving a history lesson. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing if it was half as exciting as it aims to be, but while “Red Tails” is pretty enjoyable when the pilots take to the skies to engage German planes in dogfights, it stalls out the moment they land. Writers John Ridley and Aaron McGruder are fighting an uphill battle with their poorly plotted script, which is not only bogged down by some atrocious dialogue (sample line: “Take that, Mr. Hitler!”), but attempts to give some of its characters more depth with forced subplots that are never given room to breathe and develop naturally. The romance between Joe Little and an Italian villager, in particular, feels like an afterthought designed to pad out the script to feature length.
The actors do their best to rise above the amateurish writing, but although Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. (who spends most of his scenes chomping down on a pipe) manage to escape largely unscathed, the rest of the performances are pretty flat. That has less to do with a seeming lack of talent than the perilous combination of the screenplay and director Anthony Hemingway, who makes “Red Tails” look like a made-for-TV movie with his insipid shot selection and episodic pacing. That isn’t entirely surprising considering Hemingway comes from a TV background, because despite having worked on some really great series (including “Treme” and “The Wire”), he’s clearly out of his depth here. “Red Tails” should have been a lot better than it turned out, but instead, it’s the kind of movie that gives the Nazi villain a giant scar down the side of his face as if the audience wouldn’t know he’s the bad guy without it. Hemingway, Ridley and McGruder warrant the brunt of the responsibility, but if they were smart, they would do what every “Star Wars” fan has done for years and just blame George Lucas.