In war-torn Italy, 1944, the all-black 332nd Fighter Group are denied the opportunity for combat flying and relegated to routine patrols. Yet, due to the perseverance of Colonel Bullard (Howard), they earn the chance to prove their worth.
“This is as close as you’ll get to Episode VII,” George Lucas has said about Red Tails, his long-cherished project about the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American fighter-pilot squadron. He’s not wrong. Red Tails pitches a band of plucky rebels in inferior vehicles against a dastardly empire and packs it with all the patented Lucas trademarks — a love of speed and action, moral certainty, cloth-eared dialogue, easy-to-grasp characters, idealised heroism — to create an entertaining slice of Boy’s Own adventure that never realises the full potential of its subject-matter.
Just as Star Wars is an upgrade of Flash Gordon serials, so Red Tails is a fighter-ace movie that 60-odd years ago might have been directed by Howard Hawks or Nicholas Ray (it’s actually directed by Treme/The Wire vet Anthony Hemingway). It’s the kind of old-school adventure where pilots have nicknames like Lightning (David Oyelowo), Easy (Nate Parker) and Smoky (R&B star Ne-Yo), but upgrades the old miniatures-on-wire/stock footage combo for exciting digital dogfights, which mostly feel real and stirring.
In this 1940s Top Gun, the Maverick is Joe ‘Lightning’ Little, a spirited turn from Oyelowo, taking chances in the air and on the ground, wooing an Italian senorita (Daniela Ruah). Elsewhere, the flyers are a likable set of stock characters that could have done with more complexity. In the air, they never know fear or vulnerability; on the ground they can be reduced to a single phrase — Drink Problem, God Fearing, Kid Who Becomes A Man — that nearly makes this Hot Shots! Part Trois.
It’s an enjoyable, engaging enough romp, but it eschews the edges in the story. Debatably bigger than the Red Tails’ fight in the air — the Germans make Herr Flick look progressive — is their battle against the entrenched racism of the US Air Force (represented here by Terrence Howard vs. Bryan Cranston), but the depiction here lacks grit and gravitas; one moment they are barred from an officers’ club, then, one successful mission later, they are welcomed with open arms. A fun B movie is a valid approach, but you can’t help feel there were richer pickings to be had.
This has great action, an affable cast and an inspirational story. But given its subject, it could have been so much more.