Red Tails – Movie Review
George Lucas is one of history’s most well-known and influential filmmakers, for without him there would be no Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Lucasfilm (his renowned production company), THX sound systems nor Industrial Light and Magic. Even so, he has lately become a public joke since many of his recent productions have turned out poorly due to mediocre storytelling and over-reliance on CGI. It would seem that this would still be so for the most recent Lucasfilm production, Red Tails, which is a retelling of the story of the Tuskegee Airmen regiment of African-American pilots that served in active combat during World War II. Despite being George Lucas’s “dream project,” Red Tails was written and directed by novice filmmakers/screenwriters instead of Lucas himself, so did Red Tails turn out to be a surprisingly good change of pace for Lucasfilm?
In 1944, nearly three years after entering World War II as one of the Allied Powers, the United States of America was advancing the war effort in Italy and surrounding areas to eventually execute a direct offensive against Berlin. At this time, the 332nd Fighter Group, or “Tuskegee Airmen” was stationed inItaly. However, they were facing a dilemma- they were mainly given some hit-and-run missions to destroy certain German targets, but of course the Tuskegee Airmen believed that they deserved to serve in true combat against other German pilots. While officers Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo), Martin “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) and other Tuskegee pilots mentioned in the story work to voice their opinions concerning their current status in Italy, Major Emanuel Stance (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) attempt to convince the higher ranking officers in Washington to grant their pilots at least one forward mission. As one could have guessed from the story’s time period, the rest of the world (even their fellow American troops) has no faith in the young African-American pilots, so from then on the Tuskegee Airmen put forth their most valiant effort to truly serve their country and make a difference in the costly war.
If anyone has been reading my reviews ever since I started writing for Metal Arcade back in July, you may have noticed that my summary of the plot for Red Tails was rather short compared to the past ones I have written. Why is this so, you may ask? Well… I can’t really think of any other way to summarize the story, because that is how simple it is. Yes, a plotline that is easy to follow is always good for a film since the audience is easily engaged into what is happening on-screen, but in this case, the story is perhaps a little TOO simple. Obviously the writers wanted to appeal to the audience that appreciate dumb, yet fun action films when scripting Red Tails, but come on, at least put some effort into the screenplay here! In most war films, I feel at least some sense of emotion during the heavy drama of death and despair on the battlefield (especially in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan); however, basically every on-screen death is a “Meh” moment in Red Tails.
For a film that is supposed to make us care about soldiers who struggled for their right to fight, this is not a good sign. This is perhaps because of the poor characterization in Red Tails; with the exceptions being the two lead characters, Lightning and Easy, every character in the film has a one-sided, clichéd personality. When you figure out the qualities (if any) of a character in the film, you will become disappointed that none of them really change or evolve into different people as the film progresses. This just makes me wonder how embarrassing it must be for the actual Tuskegee veterans who are portrayed so poorly in this film’s screenplay. Also, have you ever seen a World War II film in which one of the German soldiers is so evil (but corny) that you can’t help but laugh? Yeah, there’s one of those types of soldiers in Red Tails; in recent war films like War Horse, the soldiers on the opposing side are at least depicted as young men who still have some shed of humanity, adding a sense of realism to the storyline. Red Tails completely throws this convention of modern war films out the window, and as a result the film is left with a “villain” so laughingly bad that you can’t just help but facepalm yourself when watching the scenes he appears in.
Going back to the screenplay, I’d have to say that the dialogue itself is one of the worst aspects of the film. I distinctly remember Lightning, one of the main characters, shouting “How do you like that, Mr. Hitler!,” and sadly, that’s not even the worst dialogue in this film. A character even says “one more pass!” (Empire Strikes Back, anyone?) These cringe-worthy and corny one-liners, along with many clichés, predictable and derivative plot progression along with the poor characterization I mentioned earlier are all big issues here. What I mean by derivative plot progression is that if you’ve seen one of many films like Remember the Titans in which African-Americans struggle for equality, there’s nothing truly new you’ll find in this film. Believe me, I really love that sub-genre of films, but there are other films that have pulled a story similar to this much better. Still, the writers certainly respect these historical figures and it works within the constraints of the story and dialogue.
In a nutshell, the popcorn flick style of writing ruined this film’s chance at being a Saving Private Ryan in the sky, for the writers took an awesome story and turned into what you’d expect from your average Michael Bay film. Even so, there are some good things that can be said about the writing of Red Tails. The story at least has its heart in the right place for this sort of film, and when there is drama in the film it actually does work to some extent, depending on how much you can stomach uneven dialogue and over-the-top acting. Both male leads Red Tails are characters you can actually relate to and care about since their strengths and weaknesses affect their personalities and events within the story. In other words, if you compare Red Tails directly to Top Gun, Lightning and Easy would be this film’s Maverick and Iceman, and you will actually care about what happens to them as Red Tails continues on. Plus, the story may be predictable and formulaic, but at least it will somewhat please people who are going into this film to learn a little bit more about the history of the Tuskegee Airmen.
I’ll only briefly touch upon the acting of Red Tails since there isn’t much for me to say due to the fact that nearly the entire cast is either made up of established actors wasting their talent, or actors that are terrible altogether. Bryan Cranston, who everyone loves from the critically-acclaimed TV shows Malcolm in the Middle and Breaking Bad, is impossible to take seriously in his role as a Colonel involved in U.S. Army affairs at the Pentagon, which greatly disappointed me. However, he has minimal screen-time, so don’t expect to see that debacle for long. Cuba Gooding, Jr. also makes his return to the big screen in Red Tails, and like Bryan Cranston, his performance left me very disappointed; he has been a great actor in the past, but how can you stomach a performance where he smokes a pipe and spews out lines from one of the most disappointing screenplays ever written? That’s the point, you can’t. Shining from the darkness are only a few actors that portray their characters decently, in which Terrence Howard doesn’t disappoint. He is not exactly at his best here, but he does his job as Colonel Bullard, an Army officer who is trying to grant his beloved soldiers a mission back inWashington. As I mentioned earlier, both Lightning and Easy are characters you will enjoy seeing as they further develop their sense of brotherhood, and this is definitely because of how their performances turn out. Oyelowo may be over-the-top in how he handles the dialogue at times, and Parker has his minor issues as well, but both of their performances are serviceable enough to the film anyhow.
Although the historical aspect (we all love World War II movies, right?), cast and supposedly great storyline were certainly points of interest for people who wanted to see Red Tails from the get-go, I’m sure the one key reason most people will see this film is because of the emphasis the two trailers placed on the CGI-laden dogfights. Lucasfilm produced every single Star Wars film, so of course expectations for the dogfighting sequences of Red Tails were high due to the fact that the space battles of the Star Wars saga are among the most celebrated(?) in the history of film. Having seen the film, I can tell you that these sequences don’t disappoint. Sure, I personally thought that some of the action was a little repetitive at times, but even so the way that this film portrays airborne warfare is seemingly accurate and very enjoyable to watch (aside from the horrendous dialogue, of course). Some of the CGI can be unbelievable or over-the-top in some sequences, but considering that George Lucas was forced to fund the production of this whole film literally from his own pocket (the cost of Red Tails is reported to be about $58 million), Red Tails is a visual spectacle. Lucasfilm veteran Ben Burtt once again uses his innovative sound design techniques to successfully mix the sound of Red Tails, and thus the sound of this film helps to immerse you into the action occurring on-screen. However, the music, as good as it may be, is not as great as you would expect from a Lucasfilm production. Oftentimes there is no music playing during the dogfighting sequences, but then music suddenly kicks at awkward places in the scene, mildly upsetting the tone of otherwise spectacular set pieces. All in all though, Red Tails looks and sounds great.
It seems that George Lucas still can’t impress. What’s especially curious is that despite being Lucas’s “dream project,” Red Tails is a mildly lazy effort on Lucasfilm’s part. If you expected something along the lines of Saving Private Ryan with an all-black cast and dogfights, then prepare to be disappointed. However, if you were interested in seeing this film mainly to hear about the background behind the story of the Tuskegee Airmen and have some harmless fun at the movies, Red Tails is not that bad of a choice. Still, the terrible script, mostly poor acting and strange focus on making a ‘50s style action flick for a modern movie-going audience keep Red Tails from doing justice for the Tuskegee Airmen. In other words, this is film is like a fighter that doesn’t have enough fuel to go the distance.