If virtue was the sole or primary criterion for judging a movie's worth, then Red Tails would score an easy four stars.
It's a noble, "inspired-by-a-true-story" yarn, about the Tuskegee Airmen, plucky African-American fighter pilots, trained in Alabama, who overcame mountains of racial prejudice to serve with distinction in the European theatre during the Second World War.
The cast is almost entirely African-American, the sundry white characters largely cameos. Director Anthony Hemingway, best known for TV stints with Treme and The Wire, is African-American. Ditto jazz man Terence Blanchard who wrote the score and John Ridley and Aaron McGruder the screenwriters. It also looks good and feels epic, courtesy of a purported $100-million (U.S.) budget from Lucasfilms.
Virtue aside, however, Red Tails is a lousy film. Not wincingly bad, mind you, just mediocre. While the cast is almost uniformly fine, particularly Nate Parker as the anxious, alcoholic squadron leader Martin (Easy) Julian, and David Oyelwo as the rebellious, cocky ace Joe (Lightning) Little, the performances are hobbled by a script that assigns each character only one note which they're forced to sound, with little variation, throughout the film's 125-minute duration.
Meanwhile, the screenwriters' idea of dialogue encompasses, it seems, just two idioms – locker-room-style banter (One pilot: "War is hell." Another pilot: "Yeah and what we're doing is boring as hell.") and speechifying (intoned mostly by Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr., playing, respectively, a colonel and a major). That and the occasional foray into hoary cliché, personified most excruciatingly by Lars van Riesen, who, complete with facial scar, plays a nasty Nazi pilot prone to hissing lines like "Show no mercy!" and "Die, you foolish African!"
Unsurprisingly, Red Tails – the title refers to the colour of the rear markings on the P-51 fighter aircraft – is at its best when it's up in the air, machine guns ratatatating, flak blasting. Of course, all the destruction and death are given the moral weight of a video game. And the various astounding aerial manoeuvres often seem to owe more to the warp-speed twists of Star Wars spacecraft than any Immelmann a propeller-powered Mustang may have accomplished in 1944. Still, it's fun, in a "war is heck" sort of way.
The film's at its worst when it's pulled back by the surly bonds of Earth. Ridley and McGruder only caress the many issues inherent in a story about African-Americans serving in a segregated armed forces at the behest of a deeply racist nation. When Lightning proposes marriage to his sexy Italian girlfriend, Sofia, for example, the audience is given no indication as to what a radical, even transgressive act that would have been at that time. Interracial marriage wasn't legalized in Alabama until late in the 20th century, Mussolini's armies enslaved Ethiopia in 1935 – but Lightning and Sofia seem disingenuously, blissfully unmindful of these events and circumstances. Similarly, after Lightning responds with fisticuffs to a racial slur uttered in a whites-only officers club, we next see him reclining in the brig with nary a broken rib or swollen eye. In real life, he would very likely have been killed.
Possessing, as it does, all the heft of a Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos comic book, Red Tails in the end leaves you wondering what a good director armed with a more substantial script, such as Spike Lee or Norman Jewison ( In the Heat of the Night, A Soldier's Story), might have done with its premise and promise. Certainly we'd have a more issues-oriented and thoughtful film.
More adult, in short, and not this adrenalin fest for teenage boys and early twentysomethings. George Lucas has indicated that, if Red Tails is a success, he'll consider bankrolling a prequel and a sequel. Based on what we have here, though, this would probably be too much of a bad thing.
- Directed by Anthony Hemingway
- Starring Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard
- Classification: PG
- 1.5 stars
Editor's note: Lars van Riesen played a Nazi fighter pilot in the film Red Tails. Mark Doerr played a German POW camp commander. Incorrect information appeared on Jan. 20.