George Lucas' longtime pet project about the pioneering Tuskegee airmen of World War II's all African-American 332nd Fighter Group finally makes it to the big screen with zero financing from the major studios. It's mind-boggling that no one would take a gamble on a prize pic produced by the director of what is arguably the most influential motion picture in history, but that's what it's come to, apparently. That said, Red Tails isn't anywhere near as inspiring as Star Wars was for this critic back in the day. Possibly that has something to do with the lack of action figures for me to blow up with cherry bombs and lighter fluid, but I'm pretty sure it's mostly due to the film's squeaky clean air of Hollywood-isms circa 1942. The irony does not escape me there, but Lucas is on record as saying audiences should come to Red Tails with the imaginative understanding that it was actually shot in the 1940s and then shelved by studio brass for the past 70 years. "It's a great film," Lucas told Jon Stewart recently, "for 13-year-old boys." Viewed from that anachronistic angle, everything makes a little more sense.
Red Tails is both a stirring and simplistic tribute to the men that not only shattered the U.S. Army Air Corps' racial barrier but also saved the lives of many a white, B-17 crew member, all while downing countless numbers of Hitler's formidable, jet-propelled Luftwaffe. And, yes, the CGI dogfights are often thrillingly realistic, featuring the 332nd's zippy, steadfast P-51 Mustangs with their trademark red-painted tails.
Although famously based on the airmen's real-life exploits, John Ridley and Aaron McGruder's script is pure wartime hokum, which may have been their aim, but makes for a weird sense of precognitive "c'mon already" boredom whenever what's on the screen isn't in the air. Squadron leader and secret boozer "Easy" (Parker) and his wingman/best pal "Lightning" (Oyelowo) are saddled with the kind of fervently dopey dialogue that was already old hat by the time Wild Bill Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives showed the dramatic traumatics of the post-conflict return to pseudo-civility. Other cast members – among them Kelley as the company cutup, Wilds as eager beaver "Junior," a buttery Howard and Gooding Jr. as their commanding officers – are writ so large as to be archetypal without actually being all that interesting. Despite their undeniable role in fomenting a glorious revolution in the ranks, this portrayal of the Tuskegee airmen lacks the dire war-is-hell madness at the heart of, say, Saving Private Ryan. It's less shell-shocked than shellacked, but that's Lucas' intentional aesthetic, and less attributable to director Anthony Hemingway (The Wire).
But … if you're a 13-year-old boy (or if your inner one is still kicking), then the magnificently choreographed aerial battles in Red Tails will have you walking on air, at least for a little while. Afterward you can hit the video store and rent yourself a Flying Leathernecks/Memphis Belle double feature and call it a day well spent watching a war (or two) well won.