[Screen It]


(2012) (David Oyelowo, Nate Parker) (PG-13)

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Drama: African-American pilots strive for better aircraft and actual combat missions while they serve in Italy during WWII.
It's 1944 and members of the 332nd Fighter Group, a.k.a. the Tuskegee Airmen, are stationed in Italy under the command of Major Emmanuel Stance (CUBA GOODING JR.). Due to the racial inequalities of the time, they're operating with antiquated planes and are stuck behind enemy lines, despite the efforts of Colonel A.J. Bullard (TERRENCE HOWARD) back at the Pentagon to convince the military brass otherwise.

That doesn't sit well with maverick pilot Joe "Lightning" Little (DAVID OYELOWO) who wants to prove his worth and thus ends up taking unnecessary risks, much to the dismay of his friend and the squadron's captain, Marty "Easy" Julian (NATE PARKER). They fly along with the likes of fellow pilots Ray "Junior" Gannon (TRISTAN WILDS), Andrew "Smokey" Salem (NE-YO), Samuel "Joker" George (ELIJAH KELLEY), Leon "Neon" Edwards (KEVIN PHILLIPS), David "Deke" Watkins (MARCUS T. PAULK) and newcomer Maurice Wilson (MICHAEL B. JORDAN), while mechanic Antwan "Coffee" Coleman (ANDRE ROYO) chastises them if they get any of their planes shot with holes.

As Bullard continues on his quest to get his men better assignments and equipment, Easy tries to keep Lightning from risking his life or that of others -- that is, when the maverick pilot isn't wooing a local Italian woman, Sofia (DANIELA RUAH) -- while Lightning strives to get his captain off the bottle.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Since I obviously can't ever have been in all movie theaters over all of the years to witness how audiences respond to things, the following is only my localized observation on such matters. That said, I can only think of one title card that appears at the beginning of movies that elicits any sort of crowd reaction. And that's the fancy Lucasfilm Ltd. one that precedes the "Star Wars" flicks.

For some viewers, those frames listing that production house immediately get the cinematic juices going as they associate it with the usual subsequent strains of John Williams' "Star Wars" theme along with the overall familiar title bearing the same name. For others, especially after seeing the last three entries in that series, it makes one cringe a bit. And that's because while the visuals might be impressive and the action decent, the dialogue, line readings and some of the acting might be akin to the old nails down the chalkboard experience.

Such is the case with "Red Tails," a film only produced by George Lucas but one that feels, looks and sounds a lot like a WWII version of "Star Wars," in ways both good and bad. It's interesting that Lucas has been saying in recent interviews that he's been trying to make this film for the past quarter century or so, but hasn't been able to get anyone interested in releasing the film theatrically and thus had to finance the effort himself.

That's certainly an admirable thing to do, as is his quest to honor the pilots of the all-black 332nd Fighter Group, a.k.a. the Tuskegee Airmen, who fought in WWII. But it's been done better, albeit without the firepower of today's CGI effects, back in 1995 with the HBO movie "The Tuskegee Airmen" that briefly got a limited theatrical run outside of the cable TV universe.

It's funny (or sad, depending on one's view) that despite the millions Lucas poured into the film, it feels like a made for TV movie, starting with the opening sequence credit run that decidedly looks un-cinematic. Perhaps that's an intentional part of Lucas' comments about wanting to make a movie like they would have back in the 1940s (notwithstanding the color, special effects, aspect ratio, etc.).

If by that he meant one of those bad flicks with hackneyed dialogue and some awful line readings of the same, then he or -- more accurately, director Anthony Hemingway and screenwriters John Ridley and Aaron McGruder -- pretty much got it spot on. Right from the get-go, in the opening sequence, the words and the way they come out of some of the actors' mouths will make one wince.

I'd give you an example, but as I was trying to get down the exact words, another awful line would arrive and then another to the point that I knew we -- and the film -- were in trouble above and beyond what the German Luftwaffe was going to provide. While the HBO movie was cited for some of the same issues, I don't remember it being as bad, although perhaps the intervening 17 years has something to do with that.

The films pretty much follow the same plot -- that is, once both are set in Italy and the African-American pilots finally get to see active duty. That said, a subplot between a pilot and his Italian lover does nothing for the flick, while a separate, escape from a German POW story element is so abbreviated that you half expect Hogan, Newkirk, LeBeau and maybe even Schultz or Klink to show up.

Lucas has threatened -- um, stated -- that if this pic is a success, he'll make this the middle piece of a trilogy and thus focus on the before and after elements of the core story that's shown here. One can only hope -- for both our sakes and that of the heroics and sacrifices of the real-life men from so long ago -- that a script doctor and dialogue coach are brought in to patch the holes that keep this flick from taking off like it should.

That said, the effects are quite good, with decent aerial dogfight sequences and some strafing runs on a train and air base (although the number of planes in the air in some scenes certainly seems too high -- based on historical footage I've seen from WWII -- and feel like the over-busy and over-crowded such moments in the latter "Star Wars" flicks).

The performances are generally okay, with David Oyelowo and Nate Parker getting the lion's share of the material as the maverick of the squadron and his alcoholic captain. Terrence Howard can't do much as the liaison back at the Pentagon, while Cuba Gooding Jr. (who also appeared in the HBO film) is pretty much relegated to gripping and mouthing a period pipe as if imitating General MacArthur.

In the end, this feels like a somewhat lower budgeted companion piece to Michael Bay's "Pearl Harbor." The effects are all good, but the dialogue and some of the acting leaves a lot to be desired. And considering what the real life men had to go through -- especially regarding the color of their skin and how that affected the way others treated them -- they deserve so much better than this. At least Lucas restrained himself enough to make sure JarJar Binks and his Stepin Fetchit routine didn't show up. Even so, "Red Tails" rates as just a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed January 9, 2012 / Posted January 20, 2012

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