REVIEW: Red Tails Blunders Through a Potentially Great Story, with Action and Derring-do to Spare
There are instances when reviewing intentions would be so much easier than reviewing actual movies, and Red Tails, which was directed by first-timer Anthony Hemingway but conceived, shaped and willed into being by George Lucas, is one of them. Red Tails is – or is intended to be – a rousing comic-book adventure based loosely on real-life events: The picture follows a group of Tuskegee Airmen as they shoot down German fighter planes and blow munitions transport trains to smithereens. In between missions, they fight more personal battles, against insidious racism and bigotry.
It’s a great idea to make a movie, in 2012, about the Tuskegee Airmen, who broke ground as the U.S. military’s first African American aviators: They represent a chapter in history that’s been underexplored, certainly in the world of movies. But it’s a shame the idea had to come from George Lucas, whose enthusiasm for his subject translates mostly into a peculiar strain of inept awkwardness. Even if Red Tails becomes a hit – and it just might – it still represents a missed opportunity for greatness.
Red Tails focuses chiefly on two fictional pilots, Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) and Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo), both members of the Air Corp.’s 332nd Fighter Group stationed in Italy, guys with very different styles but bound by years of friendship. Easy follows all the rules, rarely straying from the straight-and-narrow (though he does, as it turns out, have his own demons to fight); Lightning is the hotdogger who’ll go out of his way to shoot down that random Nazi, even when it means going against orders. He also has the kind of confident swagger that earns him the love of a pretty Italian girl, Sofia (Daniela Ruah); he’s so charming and well-mannered that even Sofia’s old-world mama approves of him. The cast of characters milling, and flying, around Lightning and Easy include Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds), who wants nothing more than to be a fighter pilot even after an injury compromises him, and David “Deke” Watkins (Marcus T. Paulk), the only truly religious pilot in the gang, who keeps a holy card emblazoned with the figure of the deity he refers to as “Black Jesus” close by at all times.
In the air, these pilots show a desire to fight hard for their country, and they’ve got the skills to do so. But military brass doesn’t get it – in their eyes, the Tuskegee pilots are inferior and are thus relegated to routine assignments, flying in rickety old junkers. But Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) pulls off a minor miracle, getting a plum assignment for his boys. That pleases pipe-smoking Major Emanuelle Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.) to no end – his men have been champing at the bit for a chance like this, and at last they’ll have the chance to prove what they’re made of.
The problem isn’t that Red Tails paints its story, and its characters, in brilliant, admittedly corny comic-book colors. (The script, filled with dialogue along the lines of “Germans! Let’s get ’em!”, is by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder.) The approach could have worked, particularly when you’ve got a cast of actors as charismatic as these. Gooding and Howard, both known quantities, are perfectly serviceable here – Howard, in particular, makes even the most stilted dialogue sing, thanks to his silky purr. But even the lesser-known performers here, like the British actor Oyelowo, have some astonishing moments of grace – it’s frustrating to watch them working so hard in a picture that can’t, in the end, do them justice.
Because there’s just no way around it: Red Tails is, for the most part, simply a clumsy piece of work, one that revels in ’40s comic-book style without managing to capture any of the emotional resonance of comic-book style. There’s no dramatic rhythm or flow to Red Tails. A terrible thing might happen to a character, only to be rapidly erased by this or that handy distraction. It’s as if Lucas were simply afraid of human feeling, any kind of human feeling, even the kind you often find in comic books. The movie has touches of comedy that, for reasons that are almost impossible to fathom, don’t come off as comic. At one point a white character tells one of the pilots that under cover of night, he’ll be safe from the Nazis: “At least they won’t see you in the dark.” The line should be a joke – it is, in fact, a marvelous if obvious joke – but it falls flat, almost as if Lucas and/or Hemingway (it’s hard to tell who’s at the steering wheel here, though we can safely put most of our money on the former) suffered from a failure of nerve and decided to neutralize it. The picture is full of clunker moments like that, instances where the initial impulse may have been good but the execution is nothing but blundering and inelegant. This is Hemingway’s first film, though he has previously directed episodes of Treme, The Wire, and CSI: NY. If he has a distinctive style, it’s impossible to identify it in Red Tails. The handprints all over the movie clearly belong to Lucas.
That’s especially true in the technically impressive dogfighting sequences, which are the best reason to see Red Tails. Watching those planes swoop and skim through the air, sometimes flying in ballet-like formation, at others approximating a chaotic streetfight, is the greatest pleasure the movie offers. That’s not surprising when you consider that Lucas, the eternal, wide-eyed naïf among his generation of filmmakers, presented an early cut of Star Wars with old-movie dogfight footage substituting for the space-combat effects he’d fill in later.
Yet not even these glorious, effusive sequences are nearly enough to carry the picture, and in some ways, they do it a disservice. Red Tails is a project that has been dear to Lucas’ heart for years. According to a profile of Lucas in the New York Times Magazine, the filmmaker first commissioned the script in the early 1990s, and although 20th Century Fox is distributing the picture, Lucas is footing all the bills himself. Lucas has admitted that with Red Tails he’s using the comic-book approach to lure a younger audience; he wants them to engage with the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, and his intentions are noble. If only his passion had translated into a more graceful movie, one that didn’t squander the considerable gifts of its cast. In the end Red Tails is mostly about the coolness of flying. Its heart is in the clouds, instead of with the men at the controls.