The story of the Tuskegee Airmen - the African American pilots of World War II fame - is a great one, full of heroism in the air and on the ground. The irony of battling fascism overseas and then returning to racism at home - not to mention the prejudice they experienced in the military - was not lost on these men, who proved their mettle on countless aerial combat missions, even while many inside the Pentagon doubted their skills.

Red Tails, which begins with a damning epigram from a 1925 War College study ("blacks are inferior to whites in every way"), sets out to honor these heroes, and does so - but in ways that reduce their achievements to the stuff of cartoons.

A long-borning George Lucas project (he's been trying to get studio backing for more than 20 years), Red Tails, like Star Wars, is full of vintage war movie tropes: the reckless flyboys, the hard-drinking squadron captain, the evil nemeses and their deadly fighting machines. . . . And when the Tuskegee crew, based in Italy, finally gets the chance to fly new snub-nosed P-51 Mustangs - replacing their old winged jalopies, patched together with tape and gum - they take to the skies, and take down the smug Aryans in their Messerschmitts.

The dogfighting sequences, full of crisscrossing, bullets-blazing action, are rendered with digital precision - they're exhilarating. The camera zooms in on the pilots - guys with nicknames like "Smoky" and "Lightning," and "Easy" - then cuts away to crisp CG shots of planes arching up into the clouds, diving down on Nazi supply trains and warships.

"How do you like that, Mr. Hitler!" exclaims one of the pilots after blowing up a German boat.

It's not just the combat dialogue that's simplistic - and jingoistic (the word Lucas himself used when he was on Jon Stewart's show last week). Red Tails addresses segregation within the ranks of the U.S. Army Air Corps with similar one-dimensionality. The first time the squadron is assigned to escort a bombing run, the (white) pilots of the bombers take a look at the dark-skinned faces in the fighter cockpits alongside and essentially resign themselves to doom.

After the Tuskegee squad completes its run, protecting the bombers and shooting down Nazis, the same pilot says something golly-geeish like "hope we see those guys again!" And then, back on the ground, they invite the black airmen for a drink - in the whites-only officers club. Presto change-o, centuries of racism vanquished.

But Lucas, along with his director, Anthony Hemingway, and their writers, wanted it this way. Red Tails is an action movie first, full of head-spinning video game-like aerial acrobatics and artillery fire, and a history lesson second. That's why the characters are fictional composites of Tuskegee Airmen: There's Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo), who falls for a lovely Italian girl (Daniela Ruah) he first sees on a fly-over; there's Marty "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker), the squadron leader who's been dousing his nerves in whiskey; there's Ray "Junior" Gannon (Tristan Wilds), the wide-eyed kid of the bunch; and there are Maj. Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who can't give a mission brief without sticking a pipe in his face, and Col. Bullard (Terrence Howard), who is back in D.C., combating the bigots among the brass (Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston is the worst offender).

There isn't a real, flesh-and-blood figure in the bunch. Everything about Red Tails - the breaking down of racial barriers, the military achievements, the courage and sacrifice - is diminished in the process.EndText

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/