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World War II has been so thoroughly mined by the movies that it's shameful to realize how few of them have focused on African-American soldiers. There's no doubt that the story in Red Tails, about a Tuskegee Airmen unit based in Italy, deserves to be told, but it's a shame this important bit of history comes wrapped in such a garish and ungainly package. Though George Lucas is only involved as an executive producer, the movie feels as flat-footed, awkward and broad as his Star Wars prequels, and with even less imagination. Lucas and director Anthony Hemingway have assembled an impressive cast of young actors who provide the movie with its moments of spark and genuine rapport, but they're strangled by obtuse writing and a story that so grandiose it stops feeling important at all.
Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. are the headliner stars of the film, but they're both genuinely awful in it, Howard speechifying in closed-door meetings with generals (including Bryan Cranston) and Gooding in charge of the 332nd Fighter Group out in the field, chomping inexplicably on an old wooden pipe in nearly every scene. At least their roles are small, leaving most of the focus to the roster of energetic young actors, who sell a remarkable amount of the atrocious dialogue. Nate Parker is the squad leader, a strait-laced pilot who is also harbors a secret drinking problem, and he establishes a nice rapport with David Oyelowo as "Lightning," a good-natured showoff who sparks up an unlikely romance with a local Italian woman. When the Airmen are finally assigned combat duty we get to know the rest of the team a little better, but they're mostly limited to single descriptors-- the rookie, the wise friend, the musician, the ambitious one, etc.
The scenes in which we see these guys hanging out, joshing with the plane mechanic Coffee (The Wire's Andre Royo) or going over footage of their best flights, are just as clunkily written as the rest of the film, but they often feel fresh anyway. Sad as it is, we've never really seen black World War II soldiers on film, and even when the rest of the plot points feel haphazardly lifted from wartime newsreels and Snoopy vs. The Red Baron, the soldiers' efforts to prove themselves equal to their white brothers-in-arms are genuinely moving. Of course, it might just be projecting-- so many of these actors have shown talent elsewhere but remained in limited supporting roles, stuck in a movie industry that hasn't seen a black male movie star emerge in 20 years.
George Lucas famously had to put up his own money to get Red Tails made, and it's immediately obvious where the cash went-- scenes in the Italian villages or on the military base look flat and overlit, but every single aerial sequence is crammed to the gills with glossy CGI, which lends the scenes some thrills even without looking entirely authentic. There's no moment when you believe these guys are actually in the cockpits, or feel the impact of explosion or bullet holes, but it's fair to say you've never seen aerial World War II battles quite like this. It's more CGI George Lucas excess, sure, and not used nearly as well as his money could have provided, but in a movie as long and frequently dull as Red Tails, you'll be grateful for them all the same.
Wearing its heart and ideals on its sleeve, Red Tails is hard not to root for, but impossible to love all the same. It's bursting with promising young talent on the screen, but behind the camera Hemingway and Lucas are incapable of eking out a story from what ought to be fascinating and revelatory history. The 332nd Fighter Group has long deserved its moment in the spotlight, but they also deserve a movie better than this one.