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Red Tails (2012)

January 20, 2012


written by: John Ridley and Aaron McGruder

produced by: Rick McCallum, Charles Floyd Johnson, & George Lucas

directed by: Anthony Hemingway

rating: PG-13 (for some scenes of war violence) 

runtime: 121 min.

U. S. release date: January 20, 2012


“Red Tails” is being referred to as George Lucas’ new film, and even though he didn’t direct it, I’d agree with that. Bringing the story of the Tuskegee Airmen to the big-screen has been his pet project of his for decades. And now after getting sidelined by the many incarnations of Indiana Jones and various Star Wars projects, we have a January release. Not a good sign. As you’d expect from Lucasfilm studios (who have at their disposal ILM and Skywalker Sound), the movie has impressive visuals, with breathtaking aerial dogfights that are easy to follow. As you’d expect from Lucas, the dialogue is wretched and cartoonish, eliciting laughter out of the audience instead of excitement. While it may be a safe all-ages film, the important story deserves so much more than this generic treatment, consisting of laughable stock characterization and a synthetic narrative.

The problems start in the opening sequence, where in the middle of WWII we’re thrust into effects-heavy aerial action that sees the U.S. outnumbered and ripped apart by German planes. Nothing wrong with all that, as the war chaos is palpable and easy to follow (although I did find myself thinking of how I’ve seen more impressive work from certain video games), but what gets in the way of all this (literally) is a mess of distracting red words. No joke. As we try to watch the drama unfold in the sky, we’re interrupted by these crazy crimson letters, listing off all the (mostly) unrecognizable actors that will be in the movie. Done in what appears to be a late 70s/early 80s movie-of-the-week font, these credits have an unfortunate ripcord effect for the audience.

Now, that may seem like a petty or trite observation, but the first 5 minutes of a war movie should not give us any, um, red flags. So, right there – not a good start.



It’s 1944 and the U.S forces need help in the skies above Europe, yet the African-American pilots of the 99th fighter squadron stationed in Italy aren’t being called into action. These able-bodied brave men are itching to leave Ramitelli Airfield, so why aren’t they being utilized? That’s because the white brass have very little faith in the “coloreds” (as they’re crudely called) all on account of their skin color. They are given hand-me-down planes and left to soar the countryside and take out Nazi trucks or trains. Important tasks, but nothing that would gain any recognition in the papers back home and change the world’s perception of the Negro presence in the military.

Such inaction gives hotshot pilot, Joe “Lightning” Little (David Ovelowo, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) a chance to fly over the nearest Italian town and blow a kiss to a local hottie (Daniela Ruah) hanging laundry on her roof. Wouldn’t you know it, she notices him to and blows his plane a kiss. Ugh. Face palm. The first of many. Little is the kind of guy who has a hard time following orders and always has to be the arrogant maverick. Sound familiar? In fact, his repetitive rebellious behavior adds very little to the overall story. Little’s by-the-book best friend Martin “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) leads these Airmen – and guess what? He’s an alcoholic. They are accompanied by other war-movie staples, the young and eager Ray “Raygun” Gannon (Tristan Wilds) and the tag-team comic relief combo of Andrew “Smokey” Salem (Nee-Yo) and Samuel “Joker” George (Elijah Kelly). These actors do a serviceable job, with Ovelowo as the standout, but the lines they have to utter and bland characterization is atrocious.

But what of the two stars listed on the movie’s poster – one an Oscar winner, the other an Oscar nominee? Well, there’s Cuba Gooding Jr. who plays the appropriately named Maj. Stance, who spends his screen time mastering a stoic grimace and crinkled brow, while brandishing a pipe like a prized prop. As Col. Bullard. Terrence Howard is given the most to do, by spending the majority of the movie at the Pentagon, trying to convince the powers that be, like Maj. Mortamus (a stiff Bryan Cranston, given zero to do) that these segregated African-Americans are a worthy asset. Howard is convincing in a military role, as we saw in “Iron Man” (better than Don Cheadle, that’s for sure), and he does the best with the inevitable rousing speeches, but nothing original or in-depth here.



Ironically, both actors have previously appeared as Tuskegee Airmen in other movies. Gooding Jr. played a pilot in the superior HBO movie “The Tuskegee Airmen” with Lawrence Fishburne back in 1995, and Howard also played a Tuskegee pilot in 2002‘s “Hart’s War” starring Bruce Willis. Considering these two actors have portrayed characters from this part of history before, one would think they’d be a little more picky than saying yes to such paper-thin roles.



“Red Tails” suffers miserably at the hands of the two screenwriters, John Ridley (“Undercover Brother”) and Aaron McGruder (“The Boondocks” animated series), who can’t be bothered with things like complexity and instead clearly (and broadly) defines way too much. The result has gives viewers a broad Cliff Notes version of what these Tuskegee Airmen went through. There was an opportunity to show an inspiring moment of acceptance when we see the Caucasian pilots show their appreciation to the Airmen as they buy them drinks in a “Whites Only” bar. But no time was made for any character moments in that important scene, which is wasted on a congenial montage instead. While these writers failed to accentuate stronger character scenes, the most embarrassing aspect of their work is the lazy dialogue. Lines like, “Those foolish Africans!”, “Germans! Let’s get em!” and after hearing my favorite one, “My God, those pilots are Africans!”, I was looking for the eject lever in my theater seat.

This is the first feature film by director Anthony Hemingway, who’s made his name in such acclaimed television series as “The Wire” and “Treme”. Actually, Lucas serves as uncredited co-director, having had to come in and do reshoots while Hemingway was busy with “Treme”. I couldn’t detect any distinctive choices in the direction here, so it’s hard to comment on Hemingway’s work. Maybe the fact that “Red Tails” did seem like a big-budget television movie says something right there, but this movie feels like a Lucas-piloted matinée through and through. Lucas’ involvement isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since the movie certainly benefits from all the CGI he has at his disposal. It definitely benefited from some fine airplane design work too. I can’t believe I’m even thinking of it, but I would wager that the aerial acrobats would’ve been even more dramatic in 3D. Yeah, I went there. Bottom line, “Red Tails” winds up being a harmless textbook educational tool, instead of a stand up and cheer tale like, say “Glory”. It’s a nose close to being a good movie, but it tailspins into undeserved mediocrity.







3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 21, 2012 12:51 am

    The dogfights are fun but everything else is filled with corniness, lame acting, predictable story arc, and moments where the film feels like a video-game rather than based on a true story. A great story to be told, but told in a very poor way. Good review. Check out mine when you get the chance.


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