Red Tails (2012) / Drama-Action
MPAA rated: PG-13 for violence and some language
Running time: 125 min.
Cast: David Oyelowo, Nate Parker, Tristan Wilds, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Elijah Kelley, Ne-Yo, Kevin Phillips, Gerald McRaney, Bryan Cranston, Lee Tergesen, Method Man
Director: Anthony Hemingway
Screenplay: John Ridley, Aaron McGruder (based on the book by John B. Holway)
It's certainly a story worthy of a movie, and indeed it has been before in smaller capacities, but an extraordinary tale shouldn't get stuffed into the cliché claptrap that Red Tails is. It's the (mostly fictionalized) story of the 332nd Fighter Group, stationed at Ramitelli Airfield in Italy, notable because it was a group completely comprised of African-Americans segregated in a predominantly Caucasian army. The characters themselves are fictional, based on bits and pieces culled together from interviews and historical material from surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen, plus a whole lot of creative license. Terrence Howard (Iron Man, The Brave One) and a pipe-chewing Cuba Gooding Jr. (American Gangster, Daddy Day Camp) get top bill for playing the leaders of the rag-tag bunch of airmen, but the story is mostly about Joe "Lightning" Little (Oyelowo, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), the headstrong and flashy daredevil pilot who lives for the thrill of the kill, and alcoholic squad leader Marty "Easy" Julian (Parker, The Great Debaters), who struggles to keep composure while trying to keep his fellow airmen alive amidst daunting and deadly circumstances, including racism from within their own ranks.
Produced by a very hands-on George Lucas (The Clone Wars, Crystal Skull), who had made it his pet project since the late 1980s, mostly to deaf studio ears, Red Tails has a whiz-bang, golly-gee approach that might have been passable had it been made not long after the Italy of 1944 setting in which it takes place, but as a 2012 release, it is just too corny and trite, with grating comic book dialogue that explains every event and emotion through characters telling you what they're doing and how they feel about it every step of the way. With the exception of a few instances of mildly rude language, this film could easily have been meant for children, so wholesome and sanitized that one could almost envision it playing on the Hallmark Channel, and so patriotic and pious, it appears to target the Fox News/TBN crowd.
Lucas, who would be involved in directing some scenes in reshoots after longtime TV director Anthony Hemingway ("CSI:NY") had moved on to produce and film episodes of HBO's "Treme", puts much more emphasis and detail on the battles in the sky, which are admittedly well-rendered even if they have a CGI feel. The drama in the sky is passable, even if the dialogue is a bit juvenile much of the time. The dogfights are stunningly displayed, with excellent effects that rival similar films with three times the budget. Where the problems really lie is in the drama on the ground, with its robotic, expository dialogue and delivery, and a plethora of external shots that look green-screened in the most obvious of ways. Perhaps that can be said of the film as a whole -- so concerned with technical aspects that the emotional component of the story suffers through additional attempts to bring technical precision to something that should come from the heart. It's a very stiff, stolid film.
But worse than the direction is the writing. If the dialogue feels like it had been lifted out of a comic book, there might be a good reason, as screenwriter Aaron McGruder has a claim to fame as the creator of the popular comic strip and animated TV show, 'The Boondocks', while co-writer John Ridley (U Turn, "The Wanda Sykes Show") even scripted a comic book series for DC called 'The American Way'. Had Lucas framed the film as a fictional comic book-style movie inspired by the real-life adventures of American heroes, this could have played much better than it actually does, but the film's lack of style in anything outside of the aerial combat just makes the cornball writing really stand out. There are cringe-inducing moments, such as the revisionist way Howard, playing the African-American colonel, dresses down the prejudiced Pentagon brass for doubting the resolve of his men, or pat, cardboard portrayals of racist white soldiers in both the American and Nazi forces. But the absolute worst moments come from an ersatz romance between Little and a local Italian beauty, which would be too saccharine even in a pulp romance novel.
None of it is believable, which, for a film that purports to be inspired by true events, basically undoes the purpose of the film. The real-life story of the Tuskegee Airmen is remarkable enough that there is no need to embellish it, much less toss up a nearly fictional account. As a way to call attention to some unsung heroes, perhaps Red Tails has some positive things about it. But as the story of the heroic men who trained in Tuskegee, Alabama, who would fight for a country that didn't embrace them back, they are deserving of much more than this.
©2012 Vince Leo