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I left Red Tails thinking, "Not bad." Except for a few head-scratcher moments and a dreadful score, it did a lot of things...competently. But this is a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, sort of the Jackie Robinsons of fighter pilots. Instead of playing baseball in a white man's league, they were fighting (and dying) in a white man's army. An ambitious project like that requires something more than competence.

You don't have to make a somber picture about such men - actually, their jokey, gently jabbing banter in the midst of adversity is one of the film's stronger aspects - but there comes a point, you know? For a film about men who struggled to overcome incredible adversity, there's an awful lot of razzle-dazzle digital dogfighting against comic-book enemies. (Does a German fighter pilot really need to sport a nasty facial scar? Does he have to admonish his squad to show no mercy? Would they have held off otherwise?) The triumphs in the air are thrilling, but it's the triumphs on the ground that make the story significant - and that part of the story gets short shrift.

There are numerous examples, but let's take one that touches on race. Hotshot pilot Joe "Lightning" Little, feeling fine after wooing a local Italian sweetie he spotted from his plane, saunters into an American' officer's club for a drink. There, he is reminded that it is a whites-only officers club, and just to make things extra clear, one fellow calls him a nigger. Joe rushes the racist jerk, and we see the whole bar close in around him, fists flying.

Cut to a shot of Joe in the cooler. He looks none the worse for wear, despite having just taken on an entire bar's worth of angry soldiers. He argues with his life-long friend (and military superior) Marty "Easy" Julian about dealing with racism - whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows, etc. Tempers rise. But nothing comes of it. Joe's C.O. calls him on the carpet, chews him out, and tells him that he's lucky he's the best pilot they've got, because there's a mission to be flown. And that's that. Remember when Union soldier Denzel Washington got whipped in Glory? Yeah, this was nothing like that.

Red Tails just doesn't have much interest in that sort of conflict. Or any conflict that doesn't involve fancy flying maneuvers. When Joe starts to court the Italian beauty, her mother makes sure they aren't left alone together. But suddenly, they're smooching in private, and next thing we know, they're post-coital. What happened to Mama? Who knows? Other examples are more egregious, but I don't want to give too much away.

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A word about those fancy flying maneuvers: they're fun to watch. The fighters dart in and around the bombers they're assigned to protect, and the bombers provide steady points of reference that help to keep the action comprehensible. And digital or no, the Tails' P-51s skid on air the way small planes do, and now and then, the camerawork catches the giddy freedom of flight. It's a real achievement in an era of easy onscreen impossibilities. If only the rest of the film had received such careful attention.

Reader rating: a rather ambivalent two stars.

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Comments

Scott Marks Jan. 20, 2012 @ 3:15 p.m.

Did I blink, or was there a scene where the Nazis pull back and wait for the Americans to bomb their target before engaging in combat? Only in LucasLand will you find such gentlemanly stormtroopers.

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Matthew Lickona Jan. 20, 2012 @ 4:17 p.m.

Oh, the film takes place deep behind LucasLand lines, yes indeedy. I think they find that the Americans are better prepared than they were expecting in their initial attack, and so they decide to pull back and wait for their return. Yes, surprising.

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