Review: George Lucas' 'Red Tails' Poorly Commemorates Real Heroes
by Jeremy Kirk
January 20, 2012
It's easy to see what was being attempted with Red Tails. Executive producer George Lucas has been developing the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American fighter pilots who took to the skies during World War II, for more than 20 years. Lucas, a fan of the serials of the 1930s and 1940s as well as an admirer of comic books dealing with fighter pilots, wanted to fuse the tone of those with the very real story of these men. With Lucas' affection for aerial fighting as well as the digital achievements from ILM on full display in the Star Wars films, you would have thought Red Tails would've been an absolute thrill. Read on!
Unfortunately, the screenwriters behind the finished film, John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, and the director, first timer Anthony Hemingway, have churned out a cheap-looking, message-heavy machine of poor dialogue, worse performances, and some of the blandest action pieces put to film. Everything about the film, save for its very existence, is uninspired, languid, and the people behind it end up practicing hand-holding their audience instead of providing fast-paced thrills. To put it succinctly, Red Tails is a mess. The people behind the true story were brave and inspiring, and if this film was the way Lucas wanted to commemorate them, his head is clearly still in a galaxy somewhere far, far away.
At the heart of Red Tails is the 332nd Fighter Group in Italy. Hundreds of miles away from enemy lines, the men grow frustrated and bored without the opportunity to fight. Their major is played by Cuba Gooding, Jr, who uses his pipe as the biggest acting prop crutch in history. Terrance Howard as the colonel fighting in Washington for the men to get some action skulks around speechifying and looking generally disappointed. But the main story here is with the men in the sky and the first missions they used to prove themselves worthy of respect and honor.
But Red Tails hardly gives us any sense of character with most of them. There's the loud one. There's the smart one. The new kid shows up about halfway through. All of them seem to have been given a single sheet telling them to simply explain everything going on. The hand-holding begins early and carries through to the end, never missing an opportunity to catch anyone up who may have fallen asleep. That might not be such a bad thing in this particular case.
It's not just simple exposition. These characters are cartoon shells of the real items, but that could be said for the entire movie. Nothing about Red Tails feels genuine, heartfelt, or gives us any notion that Hemingway cares about his characters. He shoots them with such a stagnant, medium-shot frame and chintzy lighting that any weight the actors could bring to the table is completely lost. Any feeling of intensity Hemingway wants to give the audience is cut short by hammy dialogue married with stilted delivery. Choices made in Red Tails hinder it every step of the way. It's why distractions come at the very moment you should be engaged. It's why sizable, bright red credits appear over the opening scene of German fighters taking out American bombers left and right. Any suspense you might feel is distracted as your view becomes blocked by letters.
Those dogfights carry something of intrigue with them. ILM brings the planes and the fights to life, and when the fights are going on in the air, when everything you are seeing has been created by a computer program, it's serviceable. Your eyes almost trick you into believing it's all real. The same can't be said for when those same planes are on the ground, when they are added in with photographed imagery of soldiers or the airfield. Standing them side-by-side shows us precisely how unrealistic ILM's creations are here.
They're hollow, just like the screenplay, just like the performances, just like the connections between characters. The strongest relationship in Red Tails is found between the brash Lightning, played by David Oyelowo, and the group's leader, Easy, played by Nate Parker, who likes to take a shot of whiskey now and then. Their's is a sturdy arc in the film. You get the feeling they do care for one another, but the characteristics that define them are so on the nose that it gets in the way of everything else.
Hemingway and his screenwriters make the struggle of the Tuskegee Airmen such a heavy-handed pill to swallow, as well. A scene doesn't go by without someone pointing out why they're different than other soldiers. The film makers never shy from having the race difference become an issue. Their point has been made very early in Red Tails, but that doesn't stop them from continuing the game of "Pick Out the Racist". It all comes to a boil when an ace German pilot who becomes the thorn in the Airmen's collective side, upon discovering their race, lets out a "My God. They're African." We know the German pilot is evil, by the way, because he speaks with a heavy accent and delivers villainous lines of bad-guy exposition.
Weighed down in message, cheap in its thrills, and generally flat and uninteresting, Red Tails is the perfect example of how poor film making can hurt a very real and poignant story of bravery and overcoming the odds. It isn't that the film should never have been made. Quite the contrary, and, if you're looking for an engaging film about the Tuskegee Airmen, the HBO film from 1995 has you covered. Sadly, all the CG toys in the world couldn't help sell a film as full of unmotivated decisions and blatant commentary as Red Tails. Here's hoping the next time someone has a 20-year passion project in their sights they can take down the target with more precision and grace than George Lucas has brought us here.
Jeremy's Rating: 3 out of 10