About halfway through, Red Tails coughs up a memorable scene amid a lot of dull drama played out by unmemorable characters and not-so-impressive CGI dogfights. A group of the film’s heroes, the African-American World War II pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen, head into the Italian town near their base to engage in some well-earned R&R. On their way to a local dance hall, they’re stopped by a group of white soldiers, who invite them into the officers’ club from which one of them was rejected earlier in the film. A lot of wary glances follow the invitation. The black pilots know they’ve earned the right to be there—more than earned it—but they can’t fully convince themselves that their white brothers-in-arms have decided to treat them as equals. They’re all risking their necks for the same country, but the Tuskegee Airmen have spent their lives understanding that some are born able to enjoy its benefits more easily than others, thanks to the color of their skin.
Like so much of the film, the scene resolves predictably. But for a couple of moments, it feels as if Red Tails might turn into the film the Tuskegee Airmen deserve, one that pays tribute to their heroism while depicting the complex circumstances that made that heroism all the more remarkable. Instead, it’s the sort of bland, by-the-numbers tribute destined to bore high-school history students with lazy teachers for years to come, a sort of Remember The Titans with P-51s and Nazis instead of footballs and racist school-board members. Directed by Anthony Hemingway (a television and second-unit vet) from a script by John Ridley and Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder, Red Tails focuses on the experiences of a handful of young pilots headed by David Oyelowo (the hotheaded hero) and Nate Parker (the leader… with a secret) as they struggle to prove themselves to the Army that only reluctantly wants them in the air. Terrence Howard and a pipe-chomping Cuba Gooding Jr. co-star as a pair of commanding officers who don’t figure much in the action, a couple of talented Wire veterans (Andre Royo and Michael B. Jordan) hang around without getting much to do, and Bryan Cranston shows up to be racist before disappearing.
George Lucas produced Red Tails, a project he’s been working on in one form or another since the late 1980s. Two-plus decades ought to have been time enough for someone to give the film some vision, but Ridley and McGruder fill their surprisingly flavorless script with predictable developments, characters who would be interchangeable but for a single defining trait, and dialogue that sounds a few drafts away from being done. (Oyelowo, after a courageous run against some Nazis: “How do you like that, Mr. Hitler?!”) The aerial sequences look an awful lot like X-wing-versus-TIE-fighter battles (which were inspired by the World War II films of Lucas’ youth, but that doesn’t make the resemblance any less distracting) and the effects have the same not-quite-solid feel of the Star Wars prequels. When the heroes crash, they go up in blazes of digital glory that seem just as artificial as the plotting that brought them to their fates.