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'Red Tails' only soars in the air

8:16 AM, Jan 20, 2012   |    comments
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This World War II action-adventure tale focuses on one unit of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American squadron of military pilots. Between 1943 and 1945 they shot down more than 100 German aircraft, and Red Tails means to honor the brave pilots. But it ends up giving them short shrift with a clichéd and leaden story.

This tribute to an important chapter in history would have benefited by delving deeper beneath the surface of what these intrepid men faced from the military's then-entrenched racism. A scene in an officer's club offers a superficial glimpse of the bigotry, as do a few clashes with officers higher up the chain of command.

But more context, such as details about the Tuskegee, Ala., institute that trained the fliers and more about the pre-war lives of the individual pilots, would have made it more powerful.

The best performances are not always by the biggest names. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays a one-dimensional commanding officer whose most distinguishing characteristic is his constant pipe-smoking. Terrence Howard is multi-layered in a low-key but defiant role as the colonel who faces off against top military brass and fights for his squadron to be kept aloft.

But the actors whose character arcs leave a bigger imprint are the flying aces in the 332nd Fighter Group, the all-black unit based at Italy's Ramitelli Airfield.

David Oyelowo stands out as the daredevil Joe "Lightning" Little, the unit's best flier. With his bravery and bravado, he's the film's most complex character.

Nate Parker plays Marty "Easy" Julian, who drinks to cope with the pressure of leading the fliers.

The film, produced by George Lucas and directed by Anthony Hemingway (The Wire), is paced at just the right pitch to maintain excitement without becoming frenetic. But it's only half of a good movie. As soon as those dogfighting planes land, the story trips up by skimming the surface of history.

(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)

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