Few historical events have given us as many marvelous tales of triumph and heroism as World War II, and few of the tales of triumph and heroism in World War II can match that of the Tuskegee Airmen. Facing discrimination at home from their countrymen and fighting an enemy overseas that viewed them as subhuman, the 332nd Fighter Group, the first group of black aviators in the military, would by the wars end be one of the most decorated units in the military, and the most successful bomber escort record in the entire Air Corp. Given such a glorious and proud past, they are ideal subjects for a great war movie.
Red Tails hopes to be just that film, and it does have some strong points in it’s favor. It has a sterling cast made up of some of the best black actors Hollywood has to offer, with Cuba Gooding Jr and Terrance Howard headlining the film, and a supporting cast that includes Nate Parker, David Oye, and Method Man. In addition, it has a screenplay that was in part penned by Aaron McGruder, creator of the brilliant Boondocks comic and cartoon series. On the flipside of things, this movie is being directed by George Lucas, whom is apparently taking a break from destroying peoples childhood to kick history in the teeth before he sails off into retirement (more on that in my next article). Plus, given that the trailers have dubstep background music, I’m not exactly solid on the chances of this movie being a respectful adaptation. Still, I owe it to the Tuskegee Airmen to give the film a chance, and so I went to go see it.
So is Red Tails a soaring cinematic triumph worthy of it’s subject, or does it tailspin, crash and burn in a way only George Lucas can manage? Get prepared to set off for the wild blue yonder dear readers, this is my review of Red Tails.
To anyone familiar with thier history, the story is a familiar one. The year is 1944, the setting the European Theater of World War II. As more and more Allied bombers are shot down by the Luftwaffe, the brass at the Pentagon, after much debating, decides to allow black pilots from the 332nd Fighter Group to run escort missions. Not one to let this opportunity go to waste, the pilots not only have the best escort record of the war, but are among the Allies most respected air divisions, and one of the units most feared by Axis pilots.
Perhaps because of the immortalization of their tale, the rendition of the Tuskegee tale told by Red Tails just feels so utterly underwhelming in comparison, and I can’t figure out exactly why that is. At times, it’s because the movie sticks too closely to the book, not taking risks or giving anything new, or even interesting, resulting in much of the film coming across as a dull deja vu. Worse, the movie had many opportunities to break away from the pack it doesn’t take it. Plus, some of the films choices for padding the story are rather curious – for example, the film could have done without an entire forced and awkward romance arc between one of the airmen and a local Italian woman. Overall, and certainly considering the subject matter, the plot and execution of the film was greatly disappointing.
When one looks at the acting of the film, it is rather important to point out that movie posters aside, Cuba Gooding Jr and Terrance Howard both play relatively small supporting roles. This is somewhat odd given that both have played Tuskegee Airmen before, and disappointing for those hoping to see a reprisal of those performances, to say nothing of Cuba Gooding Jr wasting his best role in years. The film focuses instead on a fighter group whose members are played by some of the gentlemen I listed earlier, and as a whole, they do a decent job of it, especially David Oyelowo as hotshot fighter ace Joe ‘Lightning’ Little. It is also notable that unlike prior portrayals, most of the characters portrayed are fictional to my knowledge. As a whole though, despite the best efforts of the very talented cast, the acting suffers from poor direction and tiresome and cliche dialogue, the occasional quip aside, and once again, is entirely underwhelming.
As a whole, the one area the movie does not come across as underwhelming are the aerial combat scenes and special effects, the former of which are some of the best and most intense I’ve yet seen. For the three moments of the film where the pilots are airborne, you soar along with them, the the intensity of some of the dogfights is notable, and these are the only moments of the movie that manages to get any reaction from me what so ever. It’s not nearly enough to save the movie however.
The Tuskegee Airmen, and their many triumphs and tragedies, and is a tale of heroism and courage in the face of adversity that deserves a great film, and Red Tails is not that film. Despite some superb aerial combat scenes, the rest of the film suffers from a predictable plot, despite the best efforts of a talented cast, the characters are wooden and the dialogue simple, and the movie is just filled with cliché after cliché after cliché – so in other words, typical George Lucas fare. Despite some great potential, Red Tails is at best passable, and at worst, tremendously disappointing. You’re better off renting the superb 1995 HBO film, and frankly, unless you are utterly desperate for to see a better bookend to Lucas’ career than the Star Wars prequels or Indiana Jones and the Nuked Refrigerator, this movie isn’t worth your time or money.