How exactly do you screw up a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen? The now-famous African-American aces of the U.S. Army Air Corps, much neglected in their time, have captured pretty much everyone’s imagination over the years. Though maybe not Hollywood’s: George Lucas has reportedly been trying to get this movie off the ground for well over two decades now and he met with resistance at every turn, as he tells it, at the notion of a film where the heroes are all black. That may well be true; Tinseltown’s liberal politics are often belied by its conservative intuitions. But could that also be why the film Lucas and director Anthony Hemingway have delivered feels so devoid of life or edge, eager to please and fearful of offense?
Red Tails starts off promisingly enough, with a stunning vista of aerial combat, the sky practically pullulating with airplanes. (Those of us of the Lucas Generation may be reminded of the first clips we saw of Return of the Jedi’s climactic space battle.) It doesn’t look entirely real, but we don’t quite care, and Red Tails often delivers the aerial majesty of combat, if not always the suspense or the human drama. Already, though, there are warning signs: The back-and-forth between the pilots on radio between their planes is rendered too cleanly, giving the whole thing the quality of an animated movie. (Heck, Star Wars, with its pilots constantly contending with the din of their spaceships, was more realistic.) Lucas and Hemingway are hoping we’ll adjust, presumably, since a great deal of the film’s dialogue will be heard in this way. The bigger problem is what’s being said: John Ridley and Aaron McGruder’s script seems afraid to just let the action do the work, instead filling every scene with macho banter and bluster of the most generic kind.
The characters don’t fare much better. As Joe “Lightning” Little, the typical young gun who likes to fly directly into anti-aircraft fire without a second thought, David Oyelowo has charm to spare but little to actually do except be brave and stupid. That shouldn’t be a bad thing: Joe is the kind of romantic figure the movies usually do well, and he does impulsive movie things like fly movie-close to the movie-rooftops of a movie-Italian town when he sees a stunning movie-beauty hanging movie-laundry. (He later drives into town and woos the girl, played by Daniela Ruah, who admittedly looks like the woman of all men’s collective dreams — which may explain why the film refuses to give her a personality.) But Joe gets no shading, no real “moments”; his scenes with his Italian squeeze resonate with all the intimacy of a shampoo commercial. The film tries a bit harder with Joe’s best friend, Martin “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), who has a drinking problem. But it’s a measure of the film’s hesitancy that we never see him drunk. Sure, he sits around with a bottle in his hand, but we don’t see any consequences. (There is some grousing about his allowing an injured young flyer back up in the air at one point, but the movie is also on the eager, fresh-faced pilot’s side: Easy’s problem here isn’t drink, but sentimentality.)
Easy and Joe’s relationship structures the story, to the extent that it can. Along the way we get a couple of uneven star cameos as well. As the fliers’ main officer Major Emanuel Stance, Cuba Gooding Jr. overdoes it with the cigars, but he’s also quite lively – for all his one-dimensional roles, the actor has always had a conflicted quality, like he’s saying something but thinking something else, and that serves him well here. The same can’t be said for Terrence Howard’s Colonel A. J. Bullard, whose dialogue consists almost entirely of stoically inspirational speeches, even when he’s alone in a room with one other guy.
To be fair, Lucas and Hemingway aren’t going for a history lesson or a searing war drama — this isn’t really meant to be The Pacific, or even Saving Private Ryan. It’s history as a boy’s adventure, which makes it doubly strange that Lucas would mess this up. But maybe he and his team are caught between their ambitions for a fantasy of aerial combat and some duty to the real-life heroes on whom the story is loosely based. For all the occasional grace of its high-flying derring-do, Red Tails barely feels like a movie. It’s an uncertain hodgepodge of impulses and desires that never coheres enough to even crash and burn.