** (out of 5)
January 20, 2012
Terrence Howard as COLONEL A.J. BULLARD
Cuba Gooding Jr. as MAJOR EMANUELLE STANCE
Nate Parker as MARTY “EASY” JULIAN
Tristan Wilds as RAY “JUNIOR” GANNON
Elijah Kelley as SAMUEL “JOKER” GEORGE
Leslie Odom Jr. as DECLAN “WINKY” HALL
Kevin Phillips as LEON “NEON” EDWARDS
Directed by: Anthony Hemingway
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
Several months ago, a friend of mine pointed me to the trailer of “Red Tails” and asked my opinion. After watching the trailer, I shrugged and said it looked like a midland TV movie with really cool dogfights in it. After watching the film, I can say that it delivered exactly on that promise.
The movie tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, which was an African American fighter squadron in World War II. Originally thought to be inferior for combat roles, the Tuskegee Airmen were relegated to routine patrols hundreds of miles behind enemy lines. However, with perseverance and by doing their job extremely well, they are eventually given a chance to prove themselves in the air.
This story has been a pet project of George Lucas since the late 80s, and at least according to him, it’s been almost impossible to get financing for the film. (I’m not quite sure if I believe this, considering the burden of a majority-black cast isn’t much of a burden considering how many films with such a cast do quite well at the box office, but let’s just pretend to believe George on this one.) When you watch the movie, it is quite clear how Lucas was inspired by the aerial dogfights of World War II when he made the action sequences in his “Star Wars” movies.
However, as much as “Red Tails” has the traditional Lucas elements of awesome special effects and exciting dogfights, it also has the traditional Lucas elements that have lost him some respect. The writing is painful at times. At its best, the script is mediocre, offering cliched, simplified dialogue and stilted delivery. Unfortunately, there aren’t the likes of Alec Guinness, Liam Neeson and James Earl Jones to raise the quality with their expert delivery.
Instead, the film features a cast of actors who are virtually unknown in mainstream cinema. In fact, the only two above-the-line names you see on the poster are Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard. While these guys are good actors, they are each on screen for only a few key scenes. The rest of the movie is barely held together by a cast that just doesn’t pop on screen.
Most of the supporting cast is either entirely forgettable or borderline racist, including a guitar-playing pilot who talks like he stepped out of an “Amos and Andy” episode as well as an overly religious pilot who constantly prays to “Black Jesus.” I know stereotypes exist in real life, but these characters are about as progressive as the characters in a minstrel show.
The movie runs a rough 125 minutes, of which at least a half hour could have been trimmed to match the pacing of the otherwise thrilling action sequences. The story has no focus, featuring two main characters who never quite lead the film. One has the character burden of being an alcoholic, which is a weak crutch for a lazy screenwriter. The other is the upstart maverick pilot who has a nonsensical love affair with a local Italian girl despite the fact that they don’t speak the same language.
This love story might have worked had it not be a virtual retelling of the love story in the World War I fighter pilot flick “Flyboys” from about five years ago. The only thing saving “Red Tails” in this department is that most likely few people even remember “Flyboys” was a film, let alone the plot points that were shamelessly pilfered from it.
“Red Tails” is actually quite sad because it’s such a weak telling of an otherwise honorable story. I respect the hell out of the Tuskegee Airmen, but this film hardly does them justice. We have all heard that Lucas’ “Star Wars” battles were inspired by real-life dogfights, but his insistence on making this movie feels like an apology from Lucas for having only one black guy in the original “Star Wars” trilogy.
However, “Star Wars” fans need to keep in mind that this is a turning point for Lucas. If you find yourself complaining about his tinkering with the original trilogy, you should go see “Red Tails” five times in the theater an make it a hit. Give Lucas something else to focus on, and maybe he’ll leave “Star Wars” alone. If you’re a fan and you ignore “Red Tails,” don’t come bitching to me when “The Phantom Menace” hits 3D screens in three weeks.