If only, right? Instead, Red Tails languished in development hell for over 20 years, finally finding the light of day this year (dumped, unceremoniously, in the middle of January), and Lucas went ahead and made a whole new trilogy that, depending on your point of view, either ruined the franchise for all of eternity or is preferably ignored. Lucas is still on as a producer, but noted TV helmer Anthony Hemingway (The Wire, classic Battlestar Galactica episode "Six of One") is making his feature debut, working from a script by John Ridley and The Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder. The story is still the same: in 1944 Italy, the 332nd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Force is segregated from the rest of the Army, and sent on patrol missions that are, essentially, wastes of time. Stateside, Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) is going head-to-head with military commanders to get more important missions and, ultimately, save the Tuskegee program, which is being considered a "failure." Eventually, he gets the orders to serve as escorts on bombing missions, testing the mettle of all the pilots and giving them a chance to prove themselves.
The cast is an impressive roster of performers. Howard is commanding, even though his character isn't called on to do much beyond make a few motivational speeches. The same goes for Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Major Emmanuel Stance, who mostly chews on a cigar and delivers a few lines in Howard's absence. In supporting roles, Elijah Kelley, Tristan Wilds, Ne-Yo, Kevin Phillips, Marcus T. Paulk, Michael B. Jordan, and Leslie Odom, Jr. get chances to shine, but their characters are mostly sketches, adding flavor to the in-flight banter but never getting a real chance to evolve beyond single-phrase descriptions. Wilds comes closest of these men, with a brief subplot about demanding the respect of the older men, but it never has time to develop beyond a few scenes.
This is a problem that's endemic of the whole film: there's never much of a sense of who these men are as people and where they come from. Ridley and McGruder's script leaves most of the characters without more than one or two dimensions, and the dialogue sometimes feels inorganic, especially whenever the bomber pilots deliver their expository lines. The film seems so eager to move from one set piece to the next that it doesn't give all of its subplots time to develop; in fact, the film feels as if another half-hour or so would be beneficial, even though it already runs a little over two hours. A little more narrative focus would go a long way.
The film truly shines, though, when that focus falls on the captain of the unit, Marty "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker) and Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo). Easy is a man of displine, while Lightning is a man of showmanship, eager to get the glory no matter how risky. The two have the film's most multi-dimensional and sympathetic characters, and as a result, the most complicated and interesting relationship. Parker, who looks strikingly like a young Denzel Washington (with the talent to match), delivers an impressive performance, turning Easy's struggles with guilt and alcoholism into a deeply-felt conflict. Oyelowo is remarkable as Lightning, bursting with hotshot charisma and energy while also tapping into a tender side in his scenes with Sofia (Daniela Ruhla), the object of his affections. Hopefully, both men will find themselves with more starring roles soon.
Of course, this is to say nothing of the aerial dogfights. Hemingway has a keen eye for action, and the combat scenes are bravura works of special effects, each one more thrilling than the last. In particular, Hemingway and his editors thankfully understand that these sequences don't need to be loaded with jump-cuts and close-ups; instead, they let the action breathe, and the result is battles that get the adrenaline pumping.
It's a shame that Red Tails was left for dead in its January release, with little promotion or attention. The film is actually a good, often-thrilling piece of WWII cinema, with a dynamic central relationship by two should-be stars at the top of their game. If only the rest of the film could have been more focused.