RED TAILS (2012)
Starring Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Daniela Ruah & Bryan Cranston
Directed by Anthony Hemingway
Written by John Ridley & Aaron McGruder
Executive Produced by George Lucas
Produced by Rick McCallum & Charles Floyd Johnson
Cinematography by John Aronson
Music by Terence Blanchard
Edited by Michael O’Halloran & Ben Burtt

Did you guys hear?! They're making a Tuskegee Airmen video game! It's going to be SO awe....oh, wait.

   If there’s one thing that I feel should be eradicated from the face of the planet, it’s racism. Seriously, it’s probably the stupidest notion that mankind has ever conjured, one that gets absolutely nothing accomplished and feeds on people’s fears and lack of knowledge about others. I’m happy that racism seems to be less of a problem today than it was as little as 50 years ago, but it’s definitely still there, and frankly, I feel the people who practice racism today need to get with the fuckin’ program. We don’t need to be afraid of each other anymore! We’re all people! It’s literally mind-boggling to me that anyone would treat someone else cruelly based solely on their skin color. But hey, this is a movie review, not a dissertation on racial ethics. The reason I bring it up at all is because race is topic #1 in Red Tails, the new project straight from George Lucas’s vast and unfathomably bottomless wallet. This film is based on the amazing true story of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black regiment more officially known as 332nd Fighter Group of the Air Force during WWII, and is the first Lucasfilm production since 1994 that has nothing to do with Star Wars or Indiana Jones. Now I don’t know about you, but I felt much appreciation towards George Lucas for doing something beyond his multi-billion dollar franchises, and finally producing one of those “great film ideas” he’s been touting for so many years. So here we are – a brand new Lucasfilm movie based on the stories of a group of true American heroes, featuring a nearly all black cast and badass recreations of exciting WWII aerial battles. With a setup like that, Red Tails should be, like, the greatest thing EVER, right?! Well….the sad truth of the matter is no, my friends. No, it definitely isn’t.

   Red Tails was, according to the G-man himself, “designed” to look like the aerial battle films of the 40’s. And, given the exorbitant amount of detail put into the CGI dogfights in the film, I could say this “design” worked perfectly. But Red Tails, despite having excellent production value and a promising cast, unfortunately falls short of its seemingly infinite potential. And while the movie is by no means excruciatingly terrible – it provides some great visuals and a couple exciting moments – it just isn’t very good either. It’s kind of just….ehhhhhh. Which is disappointing, because honestly, I would’ve LOVED to give a movie like this a glowing review full of hyperbolic complimentary adjectives, praising it for its character depth, its execution, its style, its themes & message, the works! But each of these things I’ve listed are all where the movie just completely, utterly misses the mark.

Now THAT'S how you hit a mark! You know, these filmmakers could learn a thing or two from their own fake little plane pilots.

   My real, main beef with this film is the performances. I really don’t know what happened, because the cast in this movie is potentially GREAT and chock full of talented actors, but nearly every line in this movie is delivered with a hokey, unnatural undertone that completely takes the viewer out of what’s happening! I knew it wasn’t a very good sign when the very first line of dialogue in the movie actually made me laugh out loud in the theater. The line is delivered in German, actually, by an evil Nazi fighter pilot – I know he’s evil because his over-the-top and deliberately evil delivery of the line was meant to imbue that sense into my brain. While I was laughing I was thinking to myself “seriously….THAT was the take you used? The one that completely sounds equivalent to what a little kid would sound like while pretending to be an evil Nazi in a school playground game?” And not only that, but the dude’s facial expression – it was just soooo overplayed and corny! Like he was so obviously trying to convey that he was AN EVIL NAZI and he was ABOUT TO TAKE OUT THE AMERICANS! And then the American pilots start talking, and they sounded completely unconvincing as well! It’s like everybody in the movie deliberately decided to act terribly, and for all I know, that could have been their decision….but if it was, they didn’t do a very good job of conveying that was their intention. It just sounded like shitty, amateur line reads in a major multi-million dollar studio movie.

   In the very first scene of the film I was already taken out of what was happening because of the wooden performances by these people! Oh, and get this – during this seemingly exciting and intense battle sequence, they decide to let the opening credits roll using a VERY plain font in a very distracting shade of bright red that takes up the entire middle of the screen! So while this “action” sequence plays out – I put “action” in quotations because there isn’t any reason to care about anything that’s happening yet, thus making the “action” boring – there are giant red letters blocking our view of what’s happening! There’s these gloriously rendered CGI airplanes shooting the shit out of each other, and we can’t even kind of enjoy it because there’s giant letters in the way! So even if you wanted to enjoy the battle taking place onscreen, you couldn’t because they shoved the opening credits right in the fucking way! Couldn’t they have devised a less distracting method of rolling the opening credits? This whole opening sequence is, without a doubt, one of the most boneheaded openings for any film I’ve ever seen. I was seriously dreading the rest of the movie after viewing this haphazardly constructed sequence, and it wasn’t even 5 minutes into the film yet!

   Luckily, things started to get slightly better in the very next scene, once we actually meet the Airmen themselves. After the disaster of an opening sequence, we finally meet the main characters of the movie, and it’s refreshing that they actually have some personality and charm. I have to say that, despite my criticism of the acting in this film, the young African-American actors portraying the Airmen do a damn fine job of establishing a sense of camaraderie to the audience. You get the feeling these guys all like each other, and have been through some shit together. This is where I can actually give some credit to the filmmakers – in terms of character relatability, they actually managed to convey something extremely crucial, and that is the true brotherhood of the Tuskegee Airmen. So we start to get to know the pilots as they trade casual insults and witty remarks with each other, and they’re all pretty likeable dudes – the main two we get to know here and throughout the movie are Martin “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) and Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo), the latter of which blows up a German train by himself by disobeying orders and taking it head-on – effectively establishing his recklessness and penchant for disobedience. Although individually, almost every actor in this movie comes off as a little stale and wooden, as a group these actors shine, and since this is a movie about a group of courageous people, I can’t really knock them for achieving that. I can give ’em a pat on the head for it, at least.

It's a little known fact that the Tuskegee Airmen did, in fact, invent the badass pimp strut.

   Soon we’re treated to a scene that establishes the 332nd’s struggle to be recognized as legitimate fighter pilots in the war – a war room scene in which Col. A.J. Bullard (portrayed by Terrence Howard) takes on the clearly bigoted white warlords (for lack of a better term), the head of which is portrayed by Bryan Cranston. It’s no secret that the 332nd are pretty much regarded as a joke amongst the high brass of the war, who have no intention at all of letting these dudes see any real combat. Bullard is there to push these racist assholes into letting his men fight in a real battle, and he’s got his work cut out for him. The scene is pretty well done, but I want to take a moment to focus on the truly talented Bryan Cranston. For one thing….he’s barely, barely in this movie at all!  Now, this is a small point, since the movie is clearly not about him, but I feel like more could have been done with his character to justify the very fact that an actor of Cranston’s talent is in this movie! For those not in the loop, Bryan Cranston plays Walter White on TV’s absolutely amazing show Breaking Bad, and if you’ve seen even one episode of that magnificent show, then you understand just how great of an actor Cranston is. When I saw him in the trailers I thought he would be a formidable antagonist in this film about race issues during the war. But the dude’s literally got two scenes in the entire thing and they were BOTH in the trailers!!! I’d say his grand total was….about 4 minutes of screentime, give or take? It’s just disappointing, because I was really excited to see Cranston bust out his formidable talents in this movie – but no, he was only there to serve as a small hurdle in Bullard’s fight for equality. I dunno, I just feel like if they were going to give him such a small role, they should have cast a different actor in the part…but like I said, this is absolutely just a personal beef I have with the movie, it doesn’t really effect it as a whole….but man, I was achin’ for more Cranston! And I really think he could have made the movie just a LITTLE better! But anyway, back to bigger things.

   I really have to pick apart the tone of this movie, because frankly, I feel like it’s just completely off. Now, I know the point of this movie (according to George Lucas at least…a “man of his word”, no doubt) was to harken back to the days of simple, jingoistic, flag-waving war films, complete with the corniness and over-sentimentality that notion implies…but I’m not really sure if the story of the Tuskegee Airmen was really the right one for G.L. to do that with. The Airmen faced a LOT of hardships while fighting to attain some respect in the harsh times of the war, and I don’t feel like their story is one that can be dealt with lightly. This movie tries at once to be an examination of race issues that unfortunately plague society and also a big, dumb action flick with badass CGI dogfights. It just…doesn’t…WORK!!! There have been countless films made in the past that deal with the exact same issues this one does in much more profound and meaningful ways…Remember The Titans comes to mind, as does A Soldier’s Story, and Glory. This movie feels like it’s trying oh-so-hard to be in the same league as those movies, but it ends up brushing over the very things that made those movies emotionally notable and thematically strong to get to the mind-numbing dogfights. And while racism is definitely a big issue in the movie – there’s a scene in which Lightning goes to a military bar and is immediately told to leave by the white men in uniform there, and later scenes which show the Airmen slowly gaining respect amongst the ranks for being badass pilots who escort bombing raids to relatively casualty-free success – I just feel like overall, it wasn’t really given the attention that it definitely should have received. This is another reason I felt Bryan Cranston should have been in the movie more – his character would have been the  perfect antagonist for the 332nd! I mean, that’s what I was expecting him to be, at least! He could have been actively trying to sabotage the Airmen or sully their reputation somehow, or SOMEthing! But after the Airmen get their new planes and respect from the higher-ups, he’s just gone – as is any real form of racial bigotry in the upper ranks of the Air Force. To me, this just signifies that the movie didn’t really know what to do with its own themes, and sort of just abandoned them for glorified, CG aerial acrobatics. And while the dogfights are definitely exciting and fun to watch, there just isn’t that much depth to what is happening to make it truly captivating.

Bet you never thought you'd be yawning at something like this, did you?

   Instead of a truly deserving antagonist who could very well screw everything up for the Airmen on the beauracracy side, we’re given some kind of weird, half-assed antagonist in the form of one German dude who is affectionately dubbed “Pretty Boy” by the pilots. This guy REALLY DOESN’T LIKE the Tuskegee Airmen, and for some reason, happens to be on the opposing side every time they have a new mission. I mean, I guess that could be plausible, but it just feels really dumb and coincidental to me. Basically, this dude’s job is to look mean and shoot at the Airmen in an attempt to give us a sufficient “bad guy”, but we literally learn NOTHING about him, other than the fact he’s evil.  He really serves no purpose AT ALL in the movie and even gets shot down midway through. Seriously? This is what we get? You’ve got a kickass actor like Bryan Cranston and you completely waste him so we can see some shitty actor pretend to be all evil? What a gyp, man!

   Anyway, back to other stuff that doesn’t work. I really didn’t like the way this movie looked – everything has this over-lit, glossy feel that really detracts from the gritty reality the Airmen faced. It just feels so fake and sterilized, much like the Star Wars prequels did. While this helps the dogfight scenes have a distinctive look, it makes the rest of the movie seem as artificial as the dogfight scenes themselves. And think about this, kids: there was a time, way back in the day, where people would actually go up into the sky and stage dogfights with REAL planes, and the director and DP would be up there with them trying to capture all the frenetic action. Um, can you imagine anybody NOW doing something crazy like that?! Of course, the answer is NO! Now, thanks to the marvels of modern technology, any actual filmmaking effort can be thrown to the side in favor of convenience. I mean, if they could do it 70 years ago, why can’t they do it NOW? I dunno, this doesn’t really matter in the long run, but my point is you can go ahead and have CGI dogfights in your film, I don’t care, whatever….just please, try to make them feel real, please!

"Nice job, the green screen looks great! How much am I getting paid for this again?"

   There’s a few more things worth mentioning because they definitely drag the movie down too. I almost don’t even want to mention the romance subplot with Lightning and a local Italian woman named Sofia. Never before have I seen a romance subplot so shoddily shoved into a movie. It’s really just there to make you sad when he gets shot down at the end, so I can’t really say it adds much more depth than that to the story. Seriously, it’s not even worth going into elaborate detail for, because I honestly think my brain would explode if I attempted to do it, and it would get boring anyway, so I’ll just spare us both the strain. Just know that it SUUUUCKS. The dogfights are really cool, but even those have this otherworldly, Star Wars-like feel to them, even down to the sound design. Basically, this movie has so much going for it but never really lives up to what it could have been – a really great action flick with a solid social resonance. It simply juggles too many things at once, and what’s more, it heaps on pounds of cliches and features some truly crummy acting from most of the people involved, even the big names like Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding, Jr., both Oscar-recognized actors. I would normally mostly blame this on first-time film director Anthony Hemingway, who has made a name for himself directing episodes of TV shows like CSI:NY and The Wire. I’m sure he’s quite talented and can direct well on the little box, but for a big-budget action flick of this magnitude, he probably wasn’t the right choice. But I dunno, in the end I’m really just going to blame George Lucas for it all anyway, because let’s face it, it really just boils down to him in the long run. You can’t tell me that George Lucas didn’t have complete creative control over this movie. It was his money financing it, for God’s sake, you can’t just tell the guy with all the moneys NO!

   Believe it or not, I actually think Red Tails has one or two redeeming qualities about it – it captures the spirit of the Tuskegee Airmen and their camaraderie, and in that regard, it is a success. I’m definitely more aware of these people because of this movie, and even if it was lame, I’m glad I’m more conscious of them and the fact more people will be too. When I went and saw the movie, there were a LOT of people in the theater. Not only that, when it was over, a lot of them applauded it. It did somewhat capture a rousing spirit of adventure through somewhat likeable (if extremely one-dimensional) characters, but I doubt the people who applauded it picked up on the incredibly half-assed manner in which it was executed. But hey, if the people are entertained, what’s the difference in the end? It might just be one of those things that strikes a chord with audiences, even if the thing in question is schlocky as hell and shoddily made. Hell, just look at Troll 2.

No seriously, look at Troll 2. It's excruciatingly hilarious!

   I had really high hopes for Red Tails.  I wanted George Lucas to prove to everyone that he’s really not a soulless, money-grubbing businessman, that he actually has some filmmaking ability left in him and that something bearing his name – aside from the original Star Wars trilogy and first three Indiana Jones films – could be crafted, creatively inspired and genuinely poignant in its actualization. But instead, we get a corny, simplified, just-entertaining-enough-to-get-by action flick that could have been so much more. They’ve made the point of saying it’s like that on purpose and it still isn’t even passable under such stipulation! There’s just so many things wrong with it strictly in a filmmaker’s perspective…things like cliched writing techniques, wooden acting, awkward editing, and trivial and unneccessary subplots that don’t add anything to the story! I really feel that real American legends such as the Tuskegee Airmen deserve a lot better than this. Making a corny, pandering 40’s B-movie throwback in 2012 that simultaneously tries to honor the story of highly respected war heroes completely cheapens and makes light of what said heroes went through…even if your intent wasn’t to do that at all! The movie is just a failure. On many, many levels.

    So I guess in the end, while I managed to find a few redeeming things about Red Tails, it’s generally just another multi-million financial investment from George Lucas, in a grand-scale attempt to add some credibility to his one-trick pony name. Let’s see if it pays off.

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