An inspiring true story from American military history provides plenty of drama and adventure, even if the over-earnest approach makes it seem rather silly at times. If it weren't for the engaging cast and thrilling aerial combat sequences, the film would be hard to get through.
During WWII, black pilots trained in Tuskegee, Alabama, were sidelined in the segregated US forces. But Colonel Ballard (Howard) gets them an assignment accompanying bombers on raids in Italy. Led by Major Stance (Gooding), the team includes hot-shot Lightning (Oyelowo), self-doubting Easy (Parker), eager Junior (Wilds) and the even less-defined Smoky (Ne-Yo) and Joker (Kelley). As they square off against their Luftwaffe nemesis (van Riesen), the Tuskegee airmen's distinctive red-tailed planes develop a first-rate reputation that begins to break down racial barriers.
While based on real events, the film is fictionalised with a variety of subplots from romance to prison escape to political lobbying. In other words, the writers turn to melodrama to spice up a story that doesn't need spicing up.
This reduces each man to one or two random characteristics, such as Lightning's romance with a hot Italiana (Ruah) and Easy's guilt-ridden alcoholism. In other words, the film suffers from producer George Lucas' trademark blanding-down (as seen in Star Wars I to III).
That said, the terrific actors make the most of their thin roles. Oyelowo is especially magnetic, generating strong camaraderie with Parker. Meanwhile, Gooding and Howard provide the backbone as leaders who refuse to sit by and watch the war. So it's a shame that the script and direction never allow these characters to emerge as fully formed people, as the filmmakers rely on trite dialog and cliches by the bucketload.
Visually, the film is far too warm and glowing, but it springs to life during the exhilarating dogfights. Not only are they coherent and exciting, but the quality of the digital effects is first-rate. So with eye-catching action and likeable if simplistic characters, the film remains thoroughly entertaining despite the hackneyed side-plots. Oddly, it also feels like it's been harshly edited down from a much longer film, with scenes that have been chopped abruptly. So it might have been better as a TV series.