Red Tails could get shot down as one of the biggest disappointments of 2012.
Considering the number of times that George Lucas has produced an Indiana Jones or Star Wars film over the past 35 years, it might come as a surprise when some moviegoers discover that his production company, Lucasfilm, actually makes movies that don't include Henry Jones, Jr. or a member of the Skywalker family. Even more surprising might be the fact that Lucasfilm's latest project, Red Tails - a big budget chronicle of the Tuskegee Airmen - has actually been in the works for nearly 25 years.
So, after a quarter of a century, has Lucas (and freshman feature-film director Anthony Hemingway) put together a solid movie that entertains while also honoring the struggles and sacrifices of the African American World War II fighter pilot squad?
Lucasfilm has a widely varied track record: the Star Wars prequels and Indiana Jones 4 all performed well at the box office but aren't (by many people) considered particularly good movies, while earlier films will forever be considered classics and fan-favorites. Working without a pre-established franchise brand, Red Tails is the first movie from Lucasfilm in almost 18 years that has to actually rely on superior filmmaking to get people in the seats. Unfortunately, while Industrial Light & Magic's trademark visual spectacle delivers some breathtaking aerial fight sequences, pretty much everything in between is a mishmash of missed opportunities, stilted acting, and underwhelming character moments.
Lucasfilm met with surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen and reviewed official documents and logbooks in order to get the Red Tails story as close to actual events as possible - so when moviegoers see the enormous aerial battles onscreen, there should be a weight to the action that's absent in more fictional fare (such as Top Gun). However, the film falters on so many different technical aspects that, while the "true events" story demands weight, Red Tails fails to fully rise to the occasion.
An example: in the opening scene where German fighter planes decimate an American bomber squad, the combination of especially cliche' dialogue and near-laughable voice-over work cripples any emotional impact the scene was intended to present. Where campy mid-battle chatter helped endear moviegoers to the Star Wars universe back in the 1970's, the same approach is shockingly disjointed in a modern film that looks upon true-life WWII death and destruction.
It's an especially disappointing experience, given the rich source material. The story is provided with the fundamental building blocks necessary for an enjoyable ride that also offers profound character moments - it just never does anything particularly interesting with them. At the outset, the Tuskegee Airmen are relegated to flying patrols far from the action (limited to hunting for wayward Nazi land vehicles) - until their program is about to be shut down by closed-minded higher-ups who still believe Negro pilots are inferior to whites. In a last ditch effort to prove that his squad can deliver just as many aerial kills as those by white servicemen, Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) accepts a risky escort mission that sets the stage for the Tuskegee Airmen legacy.
Martin "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker) leads the first all African-American fighter squad into active combat, along with his hot-headed best friend, Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo). The pair are given their own story arcs (Lighting falls in love with an Italian woman and Easy struggles with a drinking problem), but (as the film is presented) neither of these sub-plots have any real impact on the primary storyline, and, individually, conclude in overly-melodramtic moments without real catharsis. As a result, despite enjoyable performances from a few of the lead actors, anything outside of the main plot comes across as manipulative filler that attempts to invest audiences in the airmen "characters" without actually delivering compelling drama.
The same approach is applied to the film's Nazi villains - who are depicted as merciless and cartoony caricatures. Understandably, it's easy to make Nazis look evil on film, but presenting them as interesting or complicated is significantly more difficult. Red Tails fails to make anything more than bloodthirsty dogs out of its villains - especially the film's main antagonist, "Pretty Boy" (Lars van Riesen), who does little but provide angry squints and shout ridiculous platitudes into his flight mask.
In general, Red Tails is filled with bizarre decisions that lead back to director Anthony Hemingway (and possibly George Lucas, himself - who directed a few reshoots). A number of scenes are abandoned before they are fully baked, and the audience rarely sees a character's reaction to a particularly difficult situation. On the flip side, several scenes (in a movie that's already over-long at 121 minutes) are entirely out of place, and serve only to set up events that don't offer much payoff down the line.
There are also some especially confounding technical choices - such as when (and when not) to use subtitles, as well as the lack of geographical timestamps (i.e. "Berlin, 1944"). Appropriately, racial stereotypes and overturning racial tensions are major themes in Red Tails; however, the subject matter is handled with a shocking lack of sophistication and subtlety that, instead of becoming a major touchstone for the storyline, comes across as little more than another underwhelming side plot.
That said, following in the Star Wars space battle pedigree, Red Tails offers some great aerial fight sequences - and makes it hard - in spite of all of the film's story and editing problems - to not enjoy the action. In the air, the characters and principle actors come alive a bit more - delivering a number of entertaining moments as they work together and outmaneuver German threats. Unfortunately, fly-time is far shorter than the amount of the film that's spent on the ground - so moviegoers aren't going to simply be able to brush Red Tails off as a fun CGI popcorn flick.
Red Tails could get shot down as one of the biggest disappointments of 2012. With such an inspiring source story, a roster of talented actors, and one of the most profitable production companies backing the film, it's genuinely hard to imagine where it all went wrong. While servicemen and families who have a connection to the Tuskegee air fighters will likely connect with the film, what ultimately comes across onscreen is a group of passionate actors that were let down by a flat mishmash of strange story and directorial choices.
While it might not enjoy the same blockbuster CGI dogfights as Red Tails, for anyone interested in this particular WWII story, it's much easier to recommend the HBO original film, The Tuskegee Airmen; that film's ability to balance heavy thematic material and entertaining moments makes it a far superior retelling of the famous Tuskegee 332nd Fighter Group.
If you’re still on the fence about Red Tails, check out the trailer below:
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Red Tails is now in theaters.