There is a regrettable moment near the end of "Red Tails," a drama inspired by the all-black Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. It comes when the Airmen, considered genetically incapable of bravery by the U.S. military, fly directly toward the enemy. A Nazi pilot screams in German, and the subtitle reads thusly:
"Die, you foolish African!"
This bizarre line, one of the most howlingly awful I've encountered in a major motion picture, marked the moment I finally lost patience with "Red Tails." Despite the movie's obvious good intentions -- and lavish production by George Lucas' Lucasfilm -- it suffers from an amateurishness and overall tone-deafness that extends to more than just German translation.
We can start with the script, by Aaron McGruder ("The Boondocks") and John Ridley ("Three Kings"), which mixes historical fact with comic-strip cliches. The stock characters include daredevil pilot Lightning (David Oyelowo), the buttoned-down Easy (Nate Parker) and interchangeable others with names like Junior (Tristan Wilds), Smokey (the singer Ne-Yo) and Joker (Elijah Kelley). The film's best actors get the worst roles: Terrence Howard is the steely Colonel Bullard and Cuba Gooding Jr. plays the pipe-chomping Major Stance.
More disheartening is director Anthony Hemingway's videogame approach to a real war. Planes swirl around like the X-Wing fighters in "Star Wars" (Industrial Light & Magic did the effects), and everyone seems to be having great fun: As German soldiers are blown to bits and burn to death, the Airmen zoom away, hooting with laughter.
Even the film's acknowledgment of racism seems inconsistent: White generals say horrible things to their black underlings, but one Airman's romance with an Italian woman (Daniela Ruah) doesn't raise an eyebrow. "Red Tails" has genuine admiration for the sacrifices and achievements made by the Tuskegee Airmen, but they deserve a better commemoration than this.
PLOT In the segregated military of World War II, the all-black Tuskegee Airmen take on a crucial mission. RATING PG-13 (violence, mild profanity, some racist language)
PLAYING AT Area theaters
BOTTOM LINE This Lucasfilm production turns World War II into one long, loud "Star Wars" battle, and the amateurish acting and direction don't help.