- 'RED TAILS': Leslie Odom Jr., Michael B. Jordan and Nate Parker star.
A bit of skepticism is in order when George Lucas, who's (ir)responsible for perhaps the two greatest popcorn-movie franchises ever (the two "Star Wars" trilogies and the Indiana Jones quadrilogy) spends 20 years scrounging for funding and talent to commit his ideas to film. Conceived in the '80s, "Red Tails," for which Lucas served as the executive producer, took a while to get moving. In 1990 Lucas told the L.A. Times (headline: "Lucas' Next Movie: Tuskegee Airmen") that he thought "Top Gun" proved there was an appetite for fighter-pilot action, even if he was proposing the bold step of focusing on an all-black group of Army airmen. "I'm sure to encounter resistance, but I'm one of the few people that can get this film made," he said then. And that was before the second batch of "Star Wars" movies were born as unleavened, soulless CGI orgies, and the fourth Indiana Jones movie was a swamp of mishmashed camp. You figure people at least trusted Lucas' artistic instincts in those days.
Pinning a big-budget fighter-pilot epic on the marketability of a predominantly black cast was surely a taller order 20 years ago. Still, you have to wonder about the script and the planning with that kind of lag. For good reason, it turns out. "Red Tails" has its moments. Cool fight sequences. An occasional snappy line. A couple of genuinely engaged performances, including that by the ace pilot, Lightning, played by David Oyelowo. Otherwise, it waddles through many of the same cliches that have plagued war movies since, well, at least WWII, when Hollywood served as an ostensible propaganda arm of the U.S. military. There are too many characters to appreciate any of them in particular. Hammy explosions. Germans who have all the humanity of battle droids. An only occasional nod to a little thing moviegoers like to call "realism."
The choice of focusing on the Tuskegee Airmen shows a better sense of topic than of actual story. The plot is simple: You've got an all-black fighter group relegated to flying beater planes on low-consequence missions in Italy. They're viewed as inferior because they're black and because they can't rack up any kills, but once they get their chance, they prove to be quite skilled fighters, and become instrumental to the Allied plan in Europe. Changing minds and hearts, blowing up Axis soldiers. And ... that's about it. We all know the Germans lost and the road to something like real equality didn't stop in 1945. "Red Tails" starts where you think it will and takes a more or less straight line to where you think it'll wind up.
It's going to have other troubles. The bankable stars — Cuba Gooding Jr. as a pipe-chomping major and Terrence Howard as a colonel who spends most of his time dealing with racism in the Pentagon — have two Oscar nods between them but never so much as climb into a cockpit. The flying is left to the whippersnappers, and while the dogfight scenes are quite lavish and mostly convincing, none of the pilots (an overburdened Nate Parker, a middling Tristan Wilds, even the likeable Ne-Yo) is likely to emerge from "Red Tails" the way Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer did from "Top Gun." Props to screenwriter John Ridley and director Anthony Hemingway (episodes of "The Wire" and of "Treme") for making some bold choices along the way, such as having Lightning fall for a woman who speaks uncaptioned Italian throughout their romance, and a choice of an ending that probably didn't focus-group well. We'll take even some small victories in a popcorn flick that had such trouble getting off the ground, and even now that it's out, still does.