Red Tails (United States, 2012)January 20, 2012
I wanted to like Red Tails. I really did. Largely financed by George Lucas (whose fingerprints are all over the final cut), this movie tells a story - that of the 332nd Fighter Group (a.k.a. "The Tuskegee Airmen") - that could combine dramatic power with impressive air combat sequences. It's a movie Lucas has reportedly been toying with making for more than 20 years. Sadly, the result is a disappointment. Sure, the aerial battles are technically adept and occasionally exhilarating, but it's almost painful to sit through some of the "drama" that occurs on the ground. The character-building moments are woeful, but they're masterpieces of writing when compared to the dialogue. One can get away with a lot of cornball speeches a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away but it doesn't work nearly as well a short time ago on planet Earth.
This is not the first time the story of The Tuskegee Airmen has been committed to film. In 1995, a made-for-HBO movie by that name did an adequate job of telling the tale. It would be fair to say there was room for improvement, but Red Tails doesn't take advantage. This movie is as faithful to history as it needs to be to get the major points across about racism in the armed forces and the importance of the 332nd in breaking the color barrier, but it does so in a ham-handed manner. Subtlety has never been one of Lucas' sterling qualities and there's none in evidence here. There are times when characters actually provide background exposition as dialogue. (It goes something like this, and while this is not verbatim, it's not an exaggeration: Bomber pilot - "Look! The fighters protecting us are leaving to destroy those German decoy planes. Now we're on our own and, in these big, mostly defenseless bombers, we can easily be shot down.")
Red Tails is primarily the story of four main characters - squadron leader Marty "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker); his best friend, Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo); the wisecracking Samuel "Joker" George (Elijah Kelley); and the youngest member of the group, Ray "Junior" Gannon (Tristan Wilds). They, and others, are defined by stereotyped characteristics. Easy is a drunk with a domineering father and a tendency toward self-pity. Lightning is a hotshot with a soft spot for the ladies. Joker doesn't know how to be serious. And Junior wants to earn a more "mature" nickname. There's nothing especially interesting about any of these individuals, although the fault is in the writing, not the acting. It's a testament to the skill of the performers that they are able to keep straight faces while uttering their lines.
At the outset, the pilots of the 332nd are stationed in Italy, running mop-up missions (like blowing up munitions trucks and trains) while under constant threat of being shut down by bigoted generals in Washington. When given a chance to provide air cover during an amphibious landing, they prove their worth and are given more important missions, including escorting the first bomber squadron to strike Berlin. Along the way, a few annoying subplots occur: the grossly underdeveloped story of Junior's time in a German prison camp, Lighning's romance with an Italian woman, and Easy's self-recriminations after one of his men is badly injured. Stalag 18 is an especially odd inclusion since it seems shoehorned in for no apparent reason beyond giving Tristan Wilds a few extra minutes of screen time. As a movie in its own right, this might have been interesting, but it is presented in such a rushed, shorthand fashion that it functions as a distraction.
Red Tails' two most high profile actors aren't given much to do. Cuba Gooding Jr. (who was also in the 1995 The Tuskegee Airmen) spends his time chomping on a pipe and delivering inspirational speeches. Terrence Howard, as the commanding officer, is mostly in Washington arguing with close-minded fellows about the capabilities of his men. He gets an opportunity to deliver his own inspirational speech or two, as well.
All of Red Tails' undercooked cheese tends to fade into the background when the characters get into the air. It's obvious that about 90% of the filmmakers' attention was focused on these scenes. A new "11.1" sound system was designed for the movie (although it's only available in a handful of theaters). It's a shame the level of meticulous detail lovingly bestowed upon planes outmaneuvering and shooting at each other isn't evident in the other aspects of Red Tails. And, if on some occasions the fighters look a little like X-Wings, what do you expect? When making Star Wars, Lucas used WW2 dogfights as his inspiration. Here, we've come full circle.
It's unclear how much input Lucas had in the final product but, considering that he personally financed the movie, it's likely his "Executive Producer" credit doesn't cover his contributions. The director, TV veteran Anthony Hemingway, was hand-picked by Lucas, but there are rumors of re-shoots in which Hemingway was not involved. According to Lucas, this is the planned middle chapter of a three-movie saga, although it's unclear whether Episodes I and III will ever see the light of day (both are supposed to be more serious and less action-oriented). The supposed goal of Red Tails is to provide an old-fashioned story of glory and heroism. In its best moments, it is that. Unfortunately, those "best moments" comprise only about 50% of Red Tails, and it would be cruel to state what the other 50% resembles.
Red Tails (United States, 2012)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: John Ridley and Aaron McGruder
Cinematography: John B. Aronson
Music: Terence Blanchard