Red TailsReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/20/12 13:23:44
In numerous interviews promoting "Red Tails," his long-gestating WW II epic focusing on the Tuskegee Airmen, George Lucas has gone to great lengths to explain the film is not meant to be taken as a history of the first U.S. Army flight squadron to consist entirely of African-American soldiers but should be considered as a straightforward genre exercise that deliberately evokes the kind of frankly patriotic films that Hollywood used to crank out in earnest during the war years in order to both entertain and inspire viewers on the home front. In theory, this might seem to make for a more potentially interesting and entertaining approach than the expected standard-issue history lesson. Unfortunately, based on the available evidence seen here, it appears as if Lucas' taste in movies made by other people is just as awful as what he has demonstrated in virtually every one of his projects to emerge over the last couple of decades because not only does "Red Tails" feel as though it were composed almost entirely of elements lifted directly from other films, they appear to have come exclusively from the kind of second-rate works that not even Turner Classic Movies would put into rotation. The end result is a waste of time, talent and subject matter that is so complete that even the few remaining Lucas fanboys still determined to keep the flame burning after the likes of "Howard the Duck," "Radioland Murders" and the "Star Wars" prequels will be hard-pressed to muster up much of a defense for this dull-witted disaster.
After a title card quoting a 1925 U.S. Army study citing African-Americans as being unfit for military duty, the story takes up in 1944 where the all-black 99th Fighter Squadron is stationed in Italy and assigned to patrols of remote airspace and the occasional strafing runs that keep them far away from the combat. As a result, the pilots are becoming increasingly frustrated with their inability to join in the real fight while the top military brass is considering shutting the squadron down entirely, even going so far as to leak a report about their lack of combat success to the media that seems to have been taken straight out of an old Ron Paul newsletter. Finally, the squad's man in Washington (Terrence Howard) gets them an important job in escorting a bomber crew to their destination and, unlike previous divisions that were so busy knocking out individual pilots in order to boost their kill ratios that they often wound up sacrificing the planes they were escorting in the promise, they not only get the bombers safely to their targets but knock out a German air base in the process.
From that point on, they go on to achieve one of the more remarkable combat records of the war while simultaneously overcoming institutionalized racism in the ranks. On the ground, however, the guys all have their own personal stories and demons to wrestle with as well. Flight leader Easy (Nate Parker) is a secret lush with daddy issues whose battle with the bottle inspires some unexpected casualties, Lightning (David Oyelowo) is a ladies man who changes his stripes one day when he flies over a house in the Italian countryside after a mission and falls instantly in love with the babe (Daniela Rush) doing her laundry on the roof. Junior (Tristan Wilds) is the kid of the group who is tired of having such a childish nickname--he prefers the more manly monicker "Raygun." Joker (Elijah Kelley). . .well, I suppose that his trait goes without saying. Looking over the men in the most avuncular manner that he can possibly muster is Major Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a man who never met a situation that couldn't be dealt with without first taking a thoughtful puff or twelve from his ever-present pipe.
Although Lucas has been talking about doing a film on the subject of the Tuskegee Airmen for nearly 25 years now (presumably as one of those small personal projects that he always claims to be working on whenever he has new "Star Wars"-related product to push), he only officially serves as the producer of "Red Tails" while John Ridley and Aaron MacGruder are credited with the screenplay while TV director Anthony Hemingway makes his big-screen debut behind the camera. However, there have been rumors that Lucas was displeased with much of what was originally filmed and reshot much of the material himself after extensive rewrites. These reports have been hotly denied, of course, but there is no denying the fact that "Red Tails" looks and sounds like a George Lucas film through and through. Unfortunately, that is no longer a good thing because right from the start, viewers are instantly inundated with the hallmarks of virtually every other Lucas-related project of the last couple of decades--overly digitized battle scenes that lack any sort of weight (literal or dramatic), astonishingly clunky dialogue ("Damn those glory-grubbing bastards!" is merely the first of a long line of howlers) and actors standing around uncomfortably while trying to react to things that won't be added in until post-production and trying to recite lines that are almost literally unspeakable.
When Lucas takes this hacky approach to his space fantasies, that is one thing because it is hard to get truly upset over the silly space operas of his imagination (no matter what the fanboys might tell you) but when he does the same thing to a true story--especially one involving a subject that has rarely been depicted on the big screen and certainly not with the resources he could lavish upon it--it is hard to come away from it without feeling insulted and let down by the way he has squandered such a promising premise with his pinball-machine histrionics. I don't object to the fact that he is trying to make an old-fashioned war film instead of a serious-minded historical drama about the Tuskegee Airmen--in a way, I almost prefer it in the sense that, with the exception of "The Thin Red Line," I tend to prefer straightforward war films to films about War in a heartbeat--but I do object to making one as junky as this one. The screenplay is an embarrassment that combines the aforementioned bad dialogue with one-dimensional characters (each one is given exactly one distinguishing character trait to work with) and a depiction of the period that oddly whitewashes the real racial tensions that presumably existed back in the day--sure, there are a couple of mean white people who don't like the black guys hanging around but one successful bombing run later and all is forgiven and forgotten. As for the largely unknown cast, none of them get much of a chance to distinguish themselves and come across so woodenly that Cuba Gooding Jr's ever-present pipe winds up turning in arguably the film's best performance--at the very least, it gets more screen time than most of the credited actors."Red Tails" is a major disappointment--a film that takes a subject that screams out for a full-scale dramatization and a budget that most filmmakers would kill for and comes up with absolutely nothing to show for it that one couldn't find on even the shabbiest bit of recycled programming on the Military Channel. Not only that, it pretty much puts the final nail in the coffin for anyone who still has the misguided belief that George Lucas is a talented and visionary storyteller. This may have been true a long time ago in a cinematic world far, far away but whatever gifts he may have once possessed have long since slipped away in his desire to build a cinematic empire that now seems only interested in rehashing his previous triumphs for as long as he can still convince people to buy into them. How bad is it? Well, next month, the now-infamous "Star Wars" prequel "The Phantom Menace" will be returning to the big screen in the "miracle" of post-conversion 3-D and even though that is a film that was fairly dreadful when it first came out and which has not exactly stood the test of time, it is actually slightly better than "Red Tails."
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