Red Tails is a high-flying action adventure film inspired by the heroics of the first all-African American aerial combat unit to serve in World War II. The action-packed movie places viewers in the cockpits of nimble fighter planes in the thick of aerial combat, takes them into the tension-filled halls of the Pentagon as the military brass debate the risks of using black pilots in battle, and invites them to experience the camaraderie of the young hotshot Tuskegee Airmen as they serve with excellence. It is an inspiring tribute to real American history told in an exciting, fast-paced style.
Red Tails is the (based on a) true story of the 332nd fighter group, an all African-American company of U.S. Army Air Corps pilots in WWII. The film starts with the unit, known as the Tuskegee Airmen, being stationed in Italy and assigned missions that see them attacking and destroying things on the ground like trucks and trains with their rag-tag, hand-me down aircraft. The military brass is reluctant to give the 332nd any real missions because of Black people's reputation for "low intelligence" and "sub-par reflexes." Back in the U.S., Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard from Iron Man and Hustle & Flow) is finally able to get them an actual combat mission - providing air support for a beach head. The unit performs so well that they end up being given new planes (with the tails painted red) and the job of escorting bombers to their targets. Past bomber escorts (of White pilots) have run off chasing kills, leaving the bombers to be destroyed by a second wave of enemy fighters, so the Tuskegee's commander, Major Emanuelle Stance (Cuba Gooding, Jr. from Men of Honor and Pearl Harbor) proposes a different strategy; under no circumstances are they to deviate from their mission of accompanying the bombers. The 332nd become legendary for never losing planes, but the pilots themselves still end up fighting the prejudice and bigotry that haunted them before they had proven themselves as flyboys.
Although Red Tails was produced by George Lucas, he opted out of directing. Instead, Lucas enlisted experienced television director Anthony Hemingway ("CSI: NY" and "True Blood") to helm the production. The subject matter is tackled in the same way that a television show would have tackled it; one dimensionally and softly. Sure, the pilots face adversity in the form of racism, but the racism that is shown in the movie really doesn't seem all that oppressive - just some derogatory name calling and flippant comments. Granted, Hemingway and Lucas couldn't exactly have taken it a whole lot farther than that and still garner a PG-13 rating, but the dulling down of the reality of the situation leaves the production lacking strength and impact.
The story of the Tuskegee Airmen should be told; it just could have been told better than it is in Red Tails. Aside from the air and fight scenes, the film is completely flat, lacking any real energy or emotion. For example, before the squadron takes off, they stand in a circle and say a prayer, then do a call-and-response type chant that gets them pumped up. Onscreen, the men are excited and ready, but the feeling does not translate to the audience. Red Tails does not illicit an emotional response that gets the audience worked up...the viewer just waits until they hop in their planes and fight again, and that doesn't happen often enough over the course of the film.
The story and script for Red Tails was penned by television writers John Ridley ("The Wanda Sykes Show" and "Barbershop") and Aaron McGruder ("The Boondocks"). The potential for a blockbuster is there, but the execution is not. The storyline has too many conveniences and holes, and the entire thing is simply predictable.
Besides the formulaic plot, the big limitation of the script is the lack of any concrete character development. Most of the characters, particularly the pilots, become interchangeable and there is little for the audience to relate to. They're not robots; the pilots are given flaws that make them human. Joe 'Lightning' Little (David Oyelowo from The Help), the best pilot in the unit, is a loose cannon, disregarding orders whenever he feels like it. Marty 'Easy' Julian (Rome & Jewel's Nate Parker), the leader of the squadron, is an alcoholic who drinks before he flies. Ray 'Junior' Gannon (Tristan Wilds from "90210") is the youngster, inexperienced and green. However, even with the pilots being portrayed as vulnerable, their characters are still shallow and uninteresting, and the only thing the audience wants to see them do is fly their planes.
The screenplay for Red Tails isn't exactly a wash; Ridley and McGruder both have a great ear for dialogue. There are some very memorable and quotable lines, whether they are uplifting ("To the last plane, the last man, the last bullet, we fight!"), commanding ("at all costs, you protect the heavies!") or comical ("you get mad and turn red, you get envious and turn green, you get cowardly and turn yellow...and you call US colored?"). The lines are great, but without a viewer's emotional investment in the characters, they're just lines.
The flying and fighting scenes in Red Tails are quite impressive. Of course they look great, with George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic behind the effects, but it's more than just the visuals that make the scenes work. The air strikes are set up with suspenseful imagery, with the pilots flying in and out of the clouds and their targets being revealed to them at the same time as they are revealed to the audience. Once the fighting starts, it is fast and furiously paced and is shot with the same sense of visceral abandonment that the pilots are feeling themselves. The air strikes and dogfights are perfectly choreographed; a lot of bullets fly, bombs drop and stuff blows up. If there's one reason to see Red Tails, it's for the flying carnage.
January 20, 2012