Red Tails’ execution fails to take flight

About a third of the way through the new George Lucas-produced film Red Tails, the 332nd Fighter Group, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen or “Red Tails,” receives all-new, P-51 fighters. The group, led by Maj. Emanuelle Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard), is finally going to get the chance to make a difference.

But first, they have got to paint those aircraft tails red.

It’s the kind of scene that’s supposed to make you smile, and it does. The problem with the scene, and the rest of this overly long film, is that it’s a completely predictable transition point — of course they’re going to paint the tails red, it’s in the name of the movie — and one that’s delivered so bluntly, so forcefully and with so many unnecessary clichés you have no choice but to realize that you’re watching a movie.

The film is not an immersive look at the fascinating story of the Tuskegee Airmen; in fact, for all the obvious good intentions of Red Tails, the film never even comes close.

Red Tails valiantly sets out to tell the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of well-trained, primarily black fighter pilots.

Despite rampant racism in the World War II-era U.S. armed forces, the Airmen were deployed late in the war to much acclaim, success and acceptance among other pilots in the force.

The film picks up, however, just as the group is facing the danger of the entire team being shut down because of the perception that they’re not functioning successfully. The problem is that though the group is deployed to Europe, they’re not on the front lines and thus have nothing to show for their skill and training.

While Col. Bullard travels to the Pentagon to fight for the group’s existence, the boys are stationed in Italy, far from the front lines, and morale sinks to new lows. Bullard saves his unit, however, and everything starts to look up for the Red Tails. New planes for the team means more dogfighting scenes, which feel real and provide the film with some much-needed adrenaline, thanks to Lucas’ impressive special effects.

Television-turned-film director Anthony Hemingway (Treme, The Wire) deftly makes these scenes mean more to the audience than anything that’s happening on the ground. It’s a good thing, too, because without this sense of importance or reality, the characters have almost nothing to stand — or fly — on by themselves.

Red Tails also follows the story of squadron leader Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) and his best friend, the wild-child Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo). Unfortunately, their actions throughout the film consist of things the audience probably could have predicted and written themselves: Lightning has a problem with Easy’s drinking, Easy struggles with Lightning not following orders in the air, Lightning falls head over heels for an Italian woman who knows no English and Easy’s constant self-pity is admonished by Col. Bullard.

These moments are delivered with an almost comical conviction, as if the audience is supposed to be seeing characteristics never before seen in any movie.

It’s really not that Parker, Oyelowo or any of their squad-mates fail to live up to the script and storyline they’re provided. Ne-Yo and Tristan Wilds make surprisingly good appearances, and Howard, at least temporarily and to some avail, seems to want to save the film.

But, the group, and Gooding Jr.’s pipe-smoking, brash character in particular, is one-dimensional; the already straightforward story detracts from what are otherwise solid performances across the board.

The Tuskegee Airmen have often been lost in the wider spectrum of stories more commonly told when Hollywood tackles World War II. Part of the reason for this, at least according to Lucas, was that studios were wary of backing a movie with a nearly all-black cast.

The members of the Tuskegee Airmen, however, still deserved a far better result than their likenesses being pitted against the most hilariously formulaic German villain since the Nazi henchmen in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Lucas reportedly began trying to get Red Tails to the big screen since 1988.  Moreover, this film is apparently the middle of a three-part series in the works of films on the Airmen.

Audiences can only hope that this capable group, led by Gooding Jr. in his first feature film in five years, gets better material if it does turn into a three-part series.

With any luck, the potential series won’t turn out as comically disappointing as Lucas’ last trilogy.