The World War II drama “Red Tails” delivers inspirational messages the way its characters, the African-American pilots known as The Tuskegee Airmen, deliver death upon the German fighters they meet in aerial battle: Relentlessly.
Throughout the film, Terrence Howard — playing the airmen’s commander, Col. A.J. Bullard, opens his mouth for only two reasons: to suck on his pipe, or to deliver a rousing speech to either prod his men toward victory or push bigoted Pentagon brass to give his men a meaningful assignment.
While they wait for that assignment at their Italian airstrip, the script — by John Ridley (“Three Kings,” “Undercover Brother”) and “The Boondocks” cartoonist Aaron McGruder — introduces us to the traditional batch of disparate characters that typically fill a war movie.
There’s the lieutenant, Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), feeling pressure because of his father’s expectations. There’s the rookie, Ray Gannon (“90210’s” Tristan Wilds), eager to show he’s a combat-ready adult. There are “Smoky” (played by rapper Ne-Yo) and “Joker” (Elijah Kelley), and the gruff mechanic, Chief “Coffee” Coleman (Andre Royo).
Front and center is Joe Little (David Oyelowo), nicknamed “Lightning,” the best pilot in the squadron. He’s also the most combustible, getting in fistfights with white soldiers — and heading into town to romance an Italian woman (Daniela Ruah, from “NCIS: Los Angeles”).
Director Anthony Hemingway makes his movie debut after amassing a strong résumé in TV (“Treme” and “CSI: NY” are among his credits), and he does right by the Tuskegee Airmen’s legacy. He pulls plenty of emotion from the predictable wartime drama, and he develops some strong chemistry from his ensemble cast.
The aerial combat sequences are state-of-the-art, which you would expect considering who Hemingway’s boss is: executive producer George Lucas, taking his first producing credit in 18 years that didn’t involve Indiana Jones or the Skywalker family.
And while the clichéd melodramatics may induce groans, the power of “Red Tails” is in how it doesn’t avoid the earnestness of a rah-rah World War II movie but embraces that patriotism. Even weighted down with symbolism and role-model aspirations, the airmen fly high.
This melodrama about black pilots proving themselves in World War II soars in spite of a hackneyed storyline.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG-13 for some sequences of war violence.
Running time • 125 mins.