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3 reviews, 7 user ratings

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Red Tails
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by Brett Gallman

"Oh, George."
2 stars

“Red Tails” is a film destined to be an anachronism. For obvious reasons, it couldn’t have actually been made back in the 50s or 60s, which is where its sensibilities lie; however, its frank, overly earnest sentiment makes it stick out like a sore thumb in multiplexes these days, not unlike a black soldier who strolls into an all-white bar during World War II (a scene that of course happens in “Red Tails”).

Let’s be honest right up front, though: “Red Tails” isn’t a disappointing film due to its anachronistic qualities. “War Horse” proves that this kind of retrograde sentimentalism can still work (and I think one needs only look to that film and this one to see the big difference between Spielberg and Lucas). Instead, “Red Tails” is a letdown precisely because clichéd scenes like the one mentioned above are so obviously telegraphed, meant to pander in the most base, easy way possible, even if they are based in reality. It’s just that we’ve seen this before, despite the fact that this particular story has never been given the big screen treatment.

The Tuskegee squadron did show up on the small screen about 15 years ago on HBO; Cuba Gooding starred in that one too, back when he was a promising actor about to make good on his potential by nabbing an Oscar in “Jerry Maguire.” Here, he’s reduced to a pipe-chomping major who chortles out pep talks and orders in equal measure to the 332nd Fighter Group, the all African American squadron that was told they’d never measure up to their white counterparts. In fact, a quote from a college study in 1925 opens the film and insists that blacks were inferior in every way and shouldn’t even be considered for duty.

And so the next two hours are spent dispelling that notion, which is a noble cause indeed. This story should be told, and I’m not even sure it couldn’t be told with the glinty-eyed nostalgia we see here--in many ways, “Red Tails” is a bit of a reclamation project, an attempt to reclaim this old-fashioned experience for African-Americans who were (and still are, to a degree) denied it because these types of black characters rarely (if ever) showed up in Old Hollywood. The problem here is that “Red Tails” simply can’t find the right through line and instead chooses to scatter about sub-plots and characters that never quite form a complete whole.

If there’s a main thread to follow, it’s found in David Oyelowo’s character, code-named “Lightning.” He’s the hot-shot pilot who falls in love with an Italian girl at first sight when he spots her as he’s flying overhead (just in case you were unsure about how big and broad and Romantic “Red Tails” gets). He gently clashes with his excessively-boozing flight leader and bunkmate (Nate Parker), a dynamic that allows for no shortage of overly-scored dramatics befitting this sort of melodrama. You’ll likely have the courses for both men pretty much charted once you’ve spent a half hour with “Red Tails.” Even when it looks like it can’t go for the mega-happy ending, it tosses in a consolation prize to send audiences spilling into the lobby with a smile on their face.

The film’s rote, overly familiar story isn’t the only drawback; really, George Lucas is the albatross hanging around the neck of “Red Tails.” This sounds like the easy way out in terms of criticism, as it’s become fashionable to blame Lucas for everything, including the defilement of one’s childhood (depending on your level of insanity). Plus, he merely produced here, with Anthony Hemingway helming his first major feature; however, the specter of Lucas’s infamous prequel trilogy hovers over this production, from the stagy, uniformly wooden line deliveries to the insipid dialogue that would have been considered poor even during the era Lucas is trying to recreate. Again, I think Lucas was coming from a very earnest place here--he’d been circling this project for nearly 25 years, and even the Old Hollywood approach shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. After all, the man’s been peddling nostalgia since “American Graffiti,” as if he’s been trying to cinematically will himself against the bleak, cold future he envisioned in “THX-1138.”

But Lucas’s career path is neither here nor there. At the very least, his presence here does mean that Hemingway has access to a budget and computer technology. So the aerial battles are huge and thrilling, albeit a bit weightless since they’re mostly just a collection of pixels; Lucas and Hemingway essentially have transported the digital grandeur of the prequels to the dogfights here, complete with the clunky cockpit chatter. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that Lucas just saw this film as another fetish chamber for his digital toys.

However, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt; after all, he could have attached both his name and ILM to a bevy of other projects over the years, but this is the first time he’s been associated with anything not bearing the title “Star Wars” or “Indiana Jones” since 1994, when he produced “Radioland Murders” (another throwback--go figure). No, I think Lucas is much more earnest than most want to give him credit for; if anything, he’s probably just terribly out of touch in the sense that he expects it’s enough to take these grand, outmoded concepts and simply give them a digital bath, recycling them for a new age. Were there any sense of ingenuity and care for actual craftsmanship beyond the technology involved, I think he’d be looked upon much more fondly.

With “Red Tails,” he even handed the reigns off to a capable cast and crew (whose occasional charisma and chemistry are the pulse of this film and keep it easily watchable); however, the film never really takes off. It almost mimics the experience of its characters, as it’s especially a slog when it’s landlocked and only briefly soars when they take to the skies. It’d be a bit severe to say that this is proof that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but I think “Red Tails” proves that such intentions can still send you into a tailspin when there isn’t a capable captain at the helm.

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originally posted: 01/29/12 19:24:42
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User Comments

8/20/12 gc cliche' ridden, contrived, historical revisionism 1 stars
6/24/12 The Taitor Udderly disappointing, bad script, way too much drama, ok visuals, just stop George 2 stars
5/27/12 TSquared They deserved to be shot down, tied in a chair, lectured for 3 days, then beaten. 2 stars
2/06/12 Man Out Six Bucks Great fights great characters great struggles great film 5 stars
1/24/12 Devin Sabas it seemed like a made for tv movie but with really bad dialog 2 stars
1/21/12 Quigley Don't even bother. This film has nothing to offer. Pretty disappointing altogether. 2 stars
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  20-Jan-2012 (PG-13)
  DVD: 22-May-2012


  DVD: 22-May-2012

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