Whaam! Like a big, bright Roy Lichtenstein canvas, Red Tails goes budda! budda! budda! as plane engines roar, bullets fly, and the enemy goes down in fiery spirals of flame. Just like a cartoon-ish pop art painting, attack planes roll, loop, and damn near pirouette in blazing dogfights over clear blue Italian skies.
Red Tails has all the boys’ own action of an old copy of Victor or Warlord except here it’s delivered in crisp CGI where everything is possible and everything is totally exaggerated and unrealistic. Ranks upon ranks of Lancaster bombers can rumble overhead, and whole transport trains can combust in one brief attack from a dive-bombing pilot. Different war, but the kind of aerial photography that made The Blue Max so thrilling was not called for here.
And that’s the problem with Red Tails; the action sequences are so computer generated they take on the hyper reality of a PlayStation game but despite that, they are the only thing worth watching. George Lucas and Rick McCallum, the man responsible for the farrago that were the Star Wars prequels, produced and they’ve merely transported the X-Wing and Imperial fighters from that galaxy far, far away, remodelled them as US warplanes, and set the story in the very real Italian theatre of war in 1944.
Our heroes are the Tuskegee Airmen, the real-life African-American squadron who were overlooked by a Pentagon high command who regarded them as intellectually inferior to the white man and unfit to fly tactical forays. We find them in the dog days of World War Two in Italy, mothballed as they fly dull escort missions over safe territory as the real action is taking place in the cauldrons over Germany. All they need is a chance to prove their considerable bravery.
Sadly, when our super fly guys are grounded inbetween dog fights Red Tails splutters and whines like a rusty crate. Unlike other airborne tales (Memphis Belle, for example), there is little chemistry between the pilots and the acting is strictly secondary to the action - strange, considering that director Anthony Hemingway worked on The Wire. But perhaps this was a clever homage to pulp comic strips and maybe speech and thought bubbles should have plumed over the actors’ heads as they read their lines.
The clichés fly as thick and fast as that red hot lead and so we have an alcoholic squad leader, comic relief in the form of Ne-yo playing a young bluesman, and one crazeee flyboy determined to down as many Nazis as possible. Naturally the Nazis, who had a lower opinion of the black man than even the USAF high command, are all evil-eyed, bullet-headed blonde baddies.
Meanwhile, over in Washington weary and wary Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard) is fighting his own battle against a Pentagon brass blinded by racial prejudice and stereotyping. Cuba Gooding Jr is given top billing but he has very little to do other than smoke a pipe with a pained expression and keep a fatherly eye on his rapscallion squadron.
Interesting: Gooding starred as a pilot in the far superior TV movie of the Tuskegee story in 1995 and without the big budget and considerable FX of Red Tails, it told the tale of these brave and brilliant airmen with more feeling and depth. As it is, a truly inspiring history lesson bristling with great characters has been turned into an annoyingly clunky action movie.