It's been 26 years since Top Gun, but the dogfights in that absurdly entertaining Reagan-era classic have lost none of their speed-demon zap. That said, Top Gun lets you know that you're basically watching a videogame with actors. Not so with Red Tails, a lavishly square historical drama about the Tuskegee Airmen, the very first African-American military pilots, who served in segregated units during World War II. The movie has potent sequences of aerial combat that recall Tom Cruise and his flyboys bombarding evil out of the air. Here, though, the planes zoom close to the ground, with the tree-lined hills of Italy looming up behind them. The actors really appear to be flying, and that gives the Airmen's brushes with the enemy even when they're just providing ''escort'' cover for white pilots a heart-in-the-throat, you-are-there quality. Plus, they do get to bomb a few Nazi planes.
As long as it stays in the air, Red Tails, a George Lucas production written by John Ridley (U Turn) and directed by Anthony Hemingway (a veteran of The Wire and CSI: NY), is a compelling sky-war pageant of a movie. On the ground, it's a far shakier experience: dutiful and prosaic, with thinly scripted episodes that don't add up to a satisfying story. The scenes of racial conflict, like one set at a white officers' club, are vivid illustrations of what the Airmen were up against, and Terrence Howard, as the colonel who argues for the right of the 99th Fighter Squadron to see combat, is defiant in an enjoyably savvy high-command way. David Oyelowo, in the Cruise-ian role of Joe ''Lightning'' Little the daredevil who must learn to fly in support of his team makes cocky bravado desperate and human. But just about everyone else in the cast achieves one or two eager dimensions rather than three. B-