– Summary –
Director : Anthony Hemmingway
Year Of Release : 2012
Principal Cast : Cuba Gooding Jr, Terrence Howard, Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelley, Tristan Wilds, Kevin Phillips, Marcus T Paulk, Michael B Jordan, Daniela Rush, Bryan Cranston, Gerald McRaney, Laars van Reisen, Method Man, Robert Kazinsky, Andre Royo.
Approx Running Time : 121 Minutes
Synopsis: A squadron of black US air-force personnel fight against racism and a lack of respect to become one of the most successful fighter pilots during World War II.
What we think : In an enormous case of being so close but still so far, this George Lucas-backed, good-intentions film about Negro pilots during WWII never truly hits the mark. Made with all the respect in the world to the real-life pilots of the time, and as you’d expect, filmed with a high degree of technical skill, the rather hokey characters and at-times atrocious scripting means Red Tails never soars through the air like it should. As an adventure it’s often rousing, only stalling when the characters remain stuck on terra firma; Red Tails tries hard, almost makes it, yet in the end only disappoints.
If Red Tails goes to prove one thing, it’s that films made with all the reverence in the world don’t mean squat if the central narrative isn’t strong. Like Michael Bay’s swallow-vomit ode to the fighters at Pearl Harbor, Red Tails is another airborne themed flick with adventure in its veins and a sense of occasion in its heart – if only those intentions weren’t so misplaced once more by shoddy screenwriting. I’m all for respecting the real life valor of those who fought and died during that horrible conflict, but the men and women who strode the battlefields, swarmed the skies and sailed the seas of World War II probably aren’t clamoring for Hollywood to ride roughshod over their highly personal, utterly horrific stories of survival and combat. And often, survival in combat. In this modern world of terrorism and a more melancholy age, audiences perhaps aren’t as willing to forgive a film about war where jokes are ever-present, the glory of the occasion outstrips the sense of desperation and fear many of these combatants must have felt, or even the fact that the events themselves are portrayed more like video games than what they were – life and death battles. In our post-9/11 world, do we prefer the Saving Private Ryan world of combat depiction, rather than the glistening technicolor panoramas of decades past?
On the cusp of the end of World War II, a squadron of Negro American fighter pilots is stationed in Italy, far away from the battlefront, as an experiment by the military to see if black pilots “have what it takes” to fight in the war. The squadron, commanded by Major Stance (Terrence Howard) and Colonel Bullard (Cuba Gooding Jr), has a good record of destroying Nazi armaments, but has not yet been engaged in actual aerial combat: at the urging of sympathetic military commanders, the squadron is given the opportunity to prove themselves by protecting a ground invasion party from Nazi attack. The squad, led by Captain “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) is determined to succeed – Julian’s friend “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo) is a cocky, arrogant and never follows the rules, much to Julian’s chagrin. Julian has a drinking problem, which causes angst after one of his squad members is seriously injured in a crash. Lightning also finds time for romancing a local Italian girl, Sophia (Daniela Rush), even though he speaks no Italian, nor she English. After their first run in with Nazi planes, one of their number, “Junior” (Tristan Wilds) also crash lands in Nazi territory and is captured, ending up located at a German POW camp. As they earn the respect of their fellow bomber buddies, the Red Tails also gain greater respect through the military community.
Perhaps more than some ill-fated love triangle during the attack on Pearl Harbor, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen is one that really deserved to be told. The Tuskegee’s were an all-Negro squadron of fighter pilots during World War II, used by the American military as little more than a PR exercise; at least, that was until they actually proved themselves in combat and became one of the most successful fighter squadrons in any World War II theater. Rising up against racism and bigotry, the Tuskegee more than acquitted themselves of their role in the war, and although Red Tails really only captures a small part of that role, it’s a worthy one to bring to the big screen. Heroism, patriotism (in the face of small-minded racism, which was prevalent at the time) and a desire to fight alongside their white brothers for the freedom of all, the Tuskegee story is one with plenty of potential just waiting to be tapped. It’s a shame, then, that George Lucas and his band of cohorts at Lucasfilm (prior to its purchase by Disney) saw fit to turn what could have been a truly remarkable story on film into one giant, gagging Boys Own Adventure.
There’s nothing really wrong with what Lucas and director Anthony Hemmingway achieved, as far as trying to capture the essences of the time, the trials of the black community even in war, and the fast-paced dogfights of aerial combat. There’s a derring-do heroism at work here, even if it is lost somewhat by the cornball dialogue. The script, by John Ridley (with rewrites by Aaron McGruder) is stacked to the rafters with cliche after cliche, some downright terrible dialogue, and an abundance of square-jawed optimism even in the face of certain doom. Some will look upon this cheesecake factor as a harkening back to the films of the 50’s and 60’s, after America and the Allies had won the war and celebrated long and hard, but for more cynical folks (such as myself), I found it tough to accept the veneer of simplistic storytelling the film offered. The film skirts reality for a kinda heightened uber-reality, the Bad Guys and Good Guys delineation found in an increasing number of vapid, PG13 films coming down the tubes these days. Which, incidentally, leaves Red Tails’s dramatic trajectory with nowhere to go. Everything about the film just feels…. nice. Which isn’t exactly what you want in a war film of any kind.
About the only real dramatic angst the film has is whether or not Easy is gonna give up the bottle. Even that’s a fairly drama-lite arc, because alcoholism isn’t really alluded to much throughout the movie. The rest of the film revolves around the tacit racism from the Tails’ bomber counterparts, and the higher-ups in the command structure not giving the squadron anything to do. While this element of the film tries to keep things serious, it’s never given enough heft by the weak script to matter, and in the end you’re just begging the film to get back into the sky where the action is, because it’s up there that the movie takes off…. if you’ll pardon the pun. Red Tails‘ breathtaking action staging is excellent, with dogfights and aerial combat actions putting you right in the thick of things as the Allied forces come into conflict with the Luftwaffe. The lead German ace, nicknamed Pretty Boy (and played with steely resolve by Lars van Reisen), is as generic a Nazi character as you could want, set up initially as some kind of unstoppable T1000 terminator killing machine, but ending up going out with a whimper when it comes to it. Generally, though, the film’s action sequences are spectacularly mounted (even if they remain momentarily lethargic through some sluggish editing at key moments) and for this, I really found the film engaging. It’s when the action drops to the ground that the film stalls completely.
The cast perform admirably, even if they must deliver some excruciating dialogue here and there. While Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr are top billed in this film (at least as far as promotional material goes) but they’re far from the leading actors this ensemble piece has going for it. Howard and Gooding Jr are good in their respective roles as the Tails’ command structure goes (Gooding Jr looks pleased with himself for clamping his lips around that smoking pipe like and old dude down on the ranch!) but offer little more than a bunch of sermonizing, hoo-rah speechifying, generic “we’re gonna fight for our country too” patriotic grandstanding. Where the real energy lies is in the camaraderie between the squad actually doing the flying – led by Nate Parker and David Oyelowo, the cast fit their roles with a comfortable ease that smacks more of genericism than any creativity by the filmmakers. Parker’s alcoholic squad leader and Oyelowo’s arrogant, does-what-he-wants sum’bitch pilot spark off each other well, but their relationship is ill-defined by the weak script and no matter how hard both actors try, they can’t quite make it work like it should. Oyelowo is probably the best actor in the entire film, at least as far as being able to imbue his character with any kind of believability and realism.
Watch out for Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston as Colonel Mortamus, a military officer who doesn’t believe the Negro has any place fighting in the war, as well as Gerard McRaney (haven’t seen him in a while!) as a more sympathetic General Luntz, both of whom supply the central premise of the film with its direction and foundational drive. Ensemble work from Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelley, Tristan Wilds, Kevin Phillips and Michael B Jordan (such an unfortunate name) as the rest of Julian’s squad is patchy but still fun, if you can get around the somewhat limited character development they’re given. Lightning’s love interest, Sofia, is warmly played by Daniela Rush, and while she’s good enough, their relationship never quite feels believable. Andre Royo plays the gruff and grumbly aircraft mechanic, Coffee Coleman, who repairs the damaged planes after each mission – of all the characters in the film, he’s the one I rolled my eyes at the most, with his constant “bring my plane back in one piece” routine getting old, really fast.
Red Tails feels in many respects like a follow-up film from Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. It follows a lot of similar plot threads – from the acceptance of black Americans fighting in the war, the rote and “comic” characters feeling awkwardly misplaced, to the lackluster romantic element (although, having said that, at least in Red Tails the “love interest” tangent is somewhat believable….) and the chest-thumping fightback by outnumbered and outclassed pilots. Anthony Hemmingway’s direction doesn’t seem as energetic as it needed to be to really sell the combat sequences, and when the film stays on the ground things go nowhere. Haphazard character tangents also draw focus away from the central characters of Lightning and Easy – why it was essential to have a sub-plot featuring Ray Gun escaping from a POW camp (a la The Great Escape) in this film confused me, because it added nothing to the story – and one gets the sense that perhaps this tribute to the airmen might not have been the kind of film the real-life airmen were expecting. The film’s “inspired by” tagline predicates some creative fiction at work on this movie – some research brings up the fact that a large amount of what occurs in the film is fictional – and knowing this also flatlines the film for the viewer. Why not tell a real story about the Tuskegee? Why fake it? Surely there’s enough factual accounts of what occurred to make a worthwhile film about these heroic men, that you don’t need to make shit up to sell it?
Red Tails has the best intentions in the world. If intentions counted for anything, this film would probably rate a solid 9 or 10 on our ranking scale. Sadly, the nett result of Hollywoodizing the Tuskegee story, throwing a bunch of dreadfully clunky characters and dialogue sequences into the mix, and having almost zero genuine dramatic arcs within the film, undermine those good intentions. Stagnant direction, poorly developed characters and an unfocused central narrative really hamstring any potential Red Tails ever had. It’s not a terrible film, but a wasted opportunity, and as such, is vastly disappointing.