Watching the film, you realize that you're in for a bumpy ride during the opening sequence, when a feeling of dread washes over you, just like when the aliens started talking with offensive Asian accents at the beginning of "Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace." In the case of "Red Tails," we're thrown into a frenzied World War II air battle, with airplanes zooming this way and that. It's reasonably exciting, even though you can't really tell who is fighting who (the German with the cartoonish scar down the side of his face, though, is definitely a bad guy), but for some goddamn reason Lucas felt the need for the opening credits to play over this scene, and not in some subtle, artistically interesting way. No, he has chosen the biggest, blockiest, most screen-consuming font, so that instead of getting caught up in the action, we were thinking "Oh, Ben Burtt, sound designer for the 'Star Wars' movies, helped edit this, hmmm." Then we got to thinking about Ewoks and then suddenly the scene was over.
Of course the airmen have a pair of higher-ups fighting for their boys. On the base, which is stationed in Italy, is Major Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr). Left with little else to do, Gooding Jr. has decided to focus his performance on animatedly chomping on his pipe, in ways that are hilarious and distracting. If there was a drinking game based around him putting that pipe in his mouth in the showiest way possible, you would probably have passed out before the end of the second act. In the Pentagon, there's Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard, looking like he really regrets making waves with the Marvel folks). Both men advocate for more responsibility for the airmen, and they get it, first assisting bombers during D-Day and then in further aerial missions.
"Red Tails" was directed by Anthony Hemingway, a veteran of HBO series like "The Wire" and "Treme," and he knows reasonably well where to put the camera and how to stage the action, but the movie often feels cheap and TV-like. The visuals are awash in drab colors, even when we detour to the Italian town that neighbors the base, and dramatic character arcs are wrapped up quickly and in tidy packages (a fighter suffers from alcoholism, another falls in love with a local Italian woman so busty you wonder how none of the wingmen made a joke about the "bombs" she is carrying). Lucas' penchant for expositional dialogue has never been stronger. After our flyers' initial run with the big boys, one of the white bomber pilots actually says, "I hope we see those Red Tails again." Yes, seriously. You could hear audible groans in the audience.
Lucas has gone on and on about how "Red Tails" is indistinguishable from similar movies that were actually produced in the 1940s, but that's pretty much horseshit too. The movie is filled with gratingly rah-rah patriotism and stock characters, but what separates it from a similar genre throwback like, say, "The Artist," is a purity of intent. Since there's nothing, in Lucas' eyes, that can't benefit from a new layer of digital paint, the action sequences feel less like classic war movies and more like some next-gen videogame, and the effect is off-putting. You can't get drawn into the action because you can barely make out what's going on. And the platitudes and speeches are refreshingly free of cynicism but they clash violently not only with cinema in 2012 but also in what we know of the war. It's hard to pump your fist with quite so much glee when the airmen take out an airbase full of Germans, knowing that many of them weren't in tune, ideologically, with the Nazis, but were, just like our heroes, men in uniform following orders. For a movie with core themes about universality and brotherhood, it's enough to make you feel alienated.
As the climax, which sees our fighters up against new Nazi jets ("reverse-engineered from downed UFO technology," you can picture Lucas snickering), zooms ahead, you all but check out emotionally. One of our main pilots dies, which is meant to be sad, but it's amazing that no one had died in the movie before this point, so instead of thinking "Awww" you think "Well, about time, this was a war after all." The movie ends with a whimper, not exactly a triumph, on the cusp of the first bombing of Berlin, which feels more like a pause than a conclusion. Maybe audiences will respond to the movie's hokey old timey feel (you half expected an ad for war bonds to appear before the closing credits) and Lucas will be able to do further stories about these unheralded heroes. But we sure hope not. [D]