George Lucas produces and semi-directs a pet project about the heroism of the black fighter pilots of the Tuskagee Squadron in WWII’s segregated US Airforce.
Nate Parker’s earnest Marty ‘Easy’ Julian leads a rag-tag band of fighter pilots on low-rent missions over Italy attacking German transport trains. His best friend and most insubordinate officer is Joe ‘Lightning’ Little (Rise of the POTA’s David Oyelowo), the best pilot in the squadron but given to glory-hunting manoeuvres. Samuel ‘Joker’ George (Elijah Kelley) is, surprisingly given his moniker, the sensible one, while Ray ‘Junior’ Gannon (90210’s Tristan Wilds) is the youngster aching to be renamed ‘Gamma Ray’. Their commander Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard) faces down official racism at the Pentagon from Colonel William Mortamus (a cameoing Bryan Cranston) in his battle to secure better planes and more prestigious missions for his segregated Tuskagee Squadron. But can his men, wrestling with their own personal demons, live up to the strain of acting as paragons for their race?
Lucas started developing this movie in the late 1980s. Anthony Hemingway finally filmed John Ridley’s script only for Lucas to direct reshoots of new material written by Aaron MacGruder (creator of The Boondocks). Sadly MacGruder’s acerbity is hard to spot whereas Lucas’ trademark saturation CGI is everywhere. There are numerous set-pieces in this film that would be very exciting if not for their complete air of unreality. If you’re watching a patently fake plane dive-bomb a patently fake train traversing a patently fake landscape your mind has already checked out, and that’s the opening sequence… Easy’s occasional struggle with alcoholism and Lightning’s implausible engagement to an Italian woman (NCIS: LA’s Daniela Ruah) despite their inability to communicate across their linguistic divide exemplify the script’s weakness. The much debated historical inaccuracies then undermine the worthy rationale of this venture.
There are some nice touches, like Jaime King’s voice floating over the camp as Axis Mary, and the much feared new Messchersmit jet-planes roaring into the fray like sci-fi creations, but the actors are better than the material. Ne-Yo as the guitar-picking ‘Smoky’ and Wire star Andre Royo as the long-suffering mechanic ‘Coffee’ offer fine comic relief, Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr as his right-hand man are nicely authoritative, and Lee Tergesen and Gerald McRaney offer nicely counterpointed turns as the Colonel pushing racial equality and the purely pragmatic Lt Gen who offers a prestigious mission guarding bombers on the strict condition that, unlike the white pilots they’re replacing, they forego all chance of dogfight glory and protect the bombers. The film loses all momentum in its third act, before Lars Van Riesen’s absurdly comic-book Nazi villain ‘Pretty Boy’ attacks to provide a rousing finale that’s sadly familiar.
Red Tails is not worth a trip to the cinema, but it’s a very watchable film that will fit comfortably into Sunday afternoon TV schedules.