- - Friday, January 20, 2012

“Red Tails” is a straightforward rouser that celebrates the bravery and patriotism of the squadron of the Tuskegee Airmen known as the Red Tails. This was an all-black unit serving in the then-segregated army during World War II. They posted an exemplary record escorting Flying Fortresses — heavy bomber aircraft — on dangerous missions over Europe and received a rare Distinguished Unit Citation for their wartime accomplishments.

For the first time, the story of the integration of the U.S. armed forces gets what screenwriter (and “Boondocks” creator) Aaron McGruder has called, “the John Wayne treatment.” The movie doesn’t dwell on the obstacles the pilots had to overcome to receive their training or get selected for important combat missions. It is part of the story, but the movie does not run wild with the tragic irony of black men defending a country that discriminates against them at home. The focus is squarely on the pilots, their support staff and commanders.

The script is what one would expect from a George Lucas production — full of clipped, declarative sentences with little in the way of complication or nuance. Mostly, the story focuses on the relationship between Capt. Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), who leads the Red Tails in the air, and his more talented and emotional wingman Lt. Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo). Lightning is impatient and seems to prefer personal glory over the demands of each mission, while Easy drinks too much and seems to Lightning to be a bit too accommodating where race is concerned.

The acting is largely staid and the story a web of war movie cliches. Cuba Gooding Jr., who plays the unit’s executive officer, spends his scenes chewing on an enormous pipe that never seems to be lit. Terrence Howard in his role as commanding officer Col. A.J. Bullard is never more or less than steely and inspirational. Tristan Wilds, who was outstanding in “The Wire” as a teenager lured into a drug gang, is here the youthful ace who is forever seeking respect from the older pilots who persist in calling him “Junior.”

“Red Tails” could have been saved by superlative action sequences. While the camera work and aerial acrobatics are top notch, the special effects suffer from a lack of realism. While it’s not feasible to blow up a bunch of vintage P-51s like they were Dodge Darts simply for the sake of verisimilitude, it would have been nice to see more attention paid to the details of how planes catch fire and blow up in midair. Too often, fire and bullet damage appear to be just painted on to the fuselages and wings of pristine aircraft.

It’s odd to say, but “Red Tails” is a blockbuster that could have benefited from a bigger special effects budget.

★★

TITLE: “Red Tails”

CREDITS: Directed by Anthony Hemingway, written by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder

RATING: PG-13 for violence

RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS