A film review by Craig J. Koban January 25, 2012
RED TAILS ½
2012, PG-13, 125 mins.
2012, PG-13, 125 mins.
Col. A.J. Bullard Terrence Howard / Major Stance Cuba Gooding Jr.
/ Maj. Mortamus Bryan Cranston / Ryan Joshua Dallas / Sofia Daniela
Ruah / Joe Little David Oyelowo / General Luntz Gerald McRaney
/ Andrew Salem Ne-Yo
George Lucas financed and produced (and apparently ghost co-directed) RED
TAILS is history as told through the pages of a 70-year-old comic book.
There is no doubt that the flannel-shirted one’s production –
his first since 1994 that does not have STAR
WARS or INDIANA JONES in its title – contains his lifelong
admiration for its subject: the Tuskegee Airmen, the very first
all-African American World War II pilot squadron that served in largely
segregated units during the conflict.
The problem with RED TAILS is not with Lucas’ noble yearning to
shed light on this very important piece of war and social history; the real
issue on display is that the film takes a great and significant
fact-based story and reduces it to one-dimensional characters, maudlin war
film clichés, and a narrative that takes way, way too many scattershot
detours. This is a would-be
great war film trapped in a mediocre shell.
A perpetual history enthusiast, Lucas has always been enamored with the
sobering tale of the Tuskegee Airmen, a rag tag group of American fighter
pilots who unfortunately had to fight a different type of psychological
war beyond the physical battles of WWII for acceptance as equals in a
largely white military. During
the war effort these men of the 332nd Fighter Group were delegated to
essentially janitorial missions: mop-up exercises that involved gunning
down munitions trucks and trains. They
were initially never given an opportunity to participate in serious
missions against Germany and, in the process, had to battle the inherent
racism that permeated the military's highest ranks.
When they were finally given their due respect and given missions
as bomber escorts in Europe, they were incomparable for their skill and
success and became highly decorated.
These men were courageous, dealt with internal and external
tyranny, and gave their lives for their country.
Their story needs and deserves to be heard.
wished that Lucas and his screenwriters – John Ridley and Aaron McGruder
– didn’t reduce such a powerfully sobering story to borderline cornball melodrama.
To be fair, the writing tandem does capture the minutia of how the
Corps did whatever they could to keep black pilots from flying alongside their
white comrades, not to mention how the Airmen were forced to partake in
missions with substandard planes. The
also evoke the personal frustrations of men of the 332nd and
how they battled through adversity to achieve self-respect and dignity as
servicemen. RED TAILS pays
adequate homage to these important men, but the manner with which it does
so is almost subverts the impact and significance of the overall message.
film follows the tales of a group of four Airmen (that are paradoxically
defined by a series of stereotypical war character traits): squadron
leader Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker); the hot-headed Joe
“Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo); the sarcastic joker of the group,
Samuel “Joker” George (Elijah Kelley) and the obligatory “baby” of
the group, Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds).
Above them all are other run-of-the-mill military types, like Major
Emanuel Stance (the perpetually pipe-chewing Cuba Gooding Jr.) and the
commanding officer, Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) whom is ultimately
the key figure that gets the Airmen off the ground and into the skies,
despite the intense reservations of the openly racist Maj. Mortamus (the
woefully underused Bryan Cranston). Every
line of dialogue from the typically talented Howard seems cut from every
inspirational speech cliché that has ever existed before in a movie; Bullard is like
a living, breathing army recruitment and civil rights advocate poster.
the 332nd Airmen are given the okay to officially launch on the front lines as protection for bomber pilots, they begin to make a
name for themselves as highly skilled and brave pilots that slowly (or in
this film’s case, extremely and unrealistically quickly) gain the
respect of their fellow white officers. They
become heroes of the war during a time when Jim Crow denied them of their
essential human rights, and the uneasiness of serving in the military when
death could be a likely outcome alongside fighting the racial injustice of
the military begins to take its toll.
of no surprise that the real stars of RED TAILS are its production values
and visual effects in recreating not only the look of the WWII camps, but also in
evoking the epically mounted aerial dogfights that the Airmen participated
in during the conflict. Being
completely Lucas-financed (apparently $100 million for production
and advertising), no expense was spared in squarely and immediately immersing
audiences in the startling verisimilitude of its air battles. Using
state-of-the-art CGI, virtuoso green screen work, and the actors
thanklessly performing to what must have been nothing, RED TAILS creates
some of the most propulsive, spectacular, exhilarating, and
technologically dazzling aerial maneuvers ever committed to film.
The film is always captivating as a spellbindingly skilful exercise
in grand-scale movie fakery.
the human-interest story is suffocated by the film’s adherence in being
a visual joyride first and foremost.
The dogfights are important, to be sure, but of more central
importance was the emotionally heartrending strife of the Airmen on the
ground. It’s hard to invest
in these men when they are all typified in the film by their one-dimensionally
ham-invested personality quirks (i.e. – one’s a drunk, one’s a
prankster, one’s a daredevil, etc.) and it's amazing, in hindsight, that
the acting entourage
assembled here manages to infuse some melancholic gravitas into their
otherwise stiffly written characters.
The enemies they fight don't fare better, as they're portrayed thinly as unemotional monsters
from an adventure serial: One German specifically, a pilot nicknamed “Pretty
Boy” (Lars van Riesen) utters subtitled lines like “My God, those
pilots are African!” and “Show the Africans no mercy!”
The audience I was with laughed at these groan-inducing proclamations,
which I think was the unintentional effect.
TAILS also gets derailed by too many ill-focused detours and subplots, one
involving a horribly underwritten love story between Lightning’s
romancing of a beautiful Italian girl that seems pathetically shoehorned
into the narrative and an even greater miscalculated storyline involving Junior’s
capture and interment in a German POW camp.
Junior’s experiences at the camp in question are almost like
regrettable afterthoughts in the film instead of being a worthwhile
inclusion as part of a cohesive overall plot.
The remaining hour of RED TAILS seems to arbitrarily and frequently
meander from one incongruent scene to the next to the point where you feel like you
watching a first cut of a film instead of a final, meticulously
chose the competent Anthony Hemmingway as RED TAILS’ director –
veteran of TV’s THE WIRE, making his feature film debut – but reports
have indicated that Lucas himself took over reshoots when Hemmingway was
not available. On Lucas’
intended levels of giving viewers an old-fashioned tale of patriotism, war
heroism, and battle glory through the veneer of a populist action film,
then I guess that RED TAILS is successful.
There’s also no questioning the film’s technological merits (it
constantly aspires for epic grandness with its aerial skirmishes) and willingness to viscerally astound and entertain.
Lucas and company deserve props for making a film about a worthy
and oftentimes forgotten story about the Airmen’s struggles and
sacrifices (and as for Lucas, not too many
white filmmakers would spend a hundred million dollars of their own money
to finance an all-black cast and story-centric war film). Yet, RED TAILS never elevates itself beyond that of a tritely
disposable war melodrama made up of so many interchangeable and overused
parts. This film is all heart
and no discipline.