Red Tails Movie Review by Jay Fingers

Red Tails
Director: Anthony Hemingway
Screenplay: John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, based on a story by Ridley
Executive Producer: George Lucas
Starring: Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Tristan Wilds, Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelley, Andre Royo, Cliff “Method Man” Smith, Daniela Ruah
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 125 minutes

There’s plenty of high-flying action in Red Tails, the latest film from executive producer George Lucas. Inspired by the true heroics and glory of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American fighter pilots who served during World War II, Red Tails is an ambitious picture that, despite its good intentions, ultimately fails to be a very good motion picture.

The film tells the story of the 332nd Fighter Group and their efforts to prove themselves to the military brass and counter the racism they faced from their own fellow soliders. Red Tails doesn’t focus on one character. Rather, it opts to cast an overview of the whole unit and positions itself as an old-fashioned war picture featuring the usual cast of stock characters: the flawed leader, the reckless hotshot, the wiseacre, the deeply devout soldier, and the kid. Of course, the difference here is these characters all have black faces, and that’s part of the reason the film has been receiving so much notice.

The other reason Red Tails has garnered the attention it has is due to the story behind the film. Much has been made of Lucas’ gamble on the picture, putting up his own money (almost $60 million) to fund the production only to find resistance when approaching Hollywood studios for distribution. It’s all very admirable, but does nothing to make up for the fact that Red Tails is simply an average film.

For much of its two-hour running time, Red Tails is mired in melodrama, which would’ve been okay had there been some true focus to the film. Director Anthony Hemingway (The Wire, Treme) handles the breathtaking aerial scenes with aplomb, imbuing them with a genuine sense of exhilaration and excitement. But he fumbles mightily when dealing with the airmen’s conflicts on the ground. Furthermore, the film is punctuated with too many scenes that either end abruptly or awkwardly.

The clichéd, expository dialogue and hackneyed scenarios offered up by screenwriters John Ridley and Aaron McGruder don’t help matters. It’s disappointing that these two supremely talented writers were seemingly unable to offer even the slightest twist on the tropes usually found in these sorts of films. And the instances they do something that’s off-kilter (are the pilots really watching footage of their last victory the same day it happened?) surely stretch the credulity of the audience.

Despite these issues, acting is solid across the board. Terrence Howard brings a quiet intensity to the role of Col. Bullard, who engages in tête-a-têtes with his Pentagon superiors on behalf of his squadron. Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding, Jr., acquits himself nicely as the sensitive, pipe-smoking major. These two actors lead a cast of familiar and not-so-familiar faces, including Nate Parker as squad leader Easy, Elijah Kelly as the wisecracking Joker, and Tristan Wilds as the young Ray Gun. In fact, the only actor who doesn’t ring true is R&B singer Ne-Yo, whose exaggerated Southern accent borders on grating.

However, the film truly belongs to David Oyelowo, who portrays Lightning, the squad’s superstar pilot. Not only does he get display a hubris that’s ultimately endearing, Oyelowo also shows his softer side in the romantic subplot featuring the alluring Daniela Ruah.

Given the film’s produced by Lucasfilm, special effects are top-notch across the board. As mentioned, the dogfight scenes are impeccable and the sound design is so creative, one wonders if we’ve been taken to a galaxy far, far away.

It goes without saying that the real Tuskegee Airmen, the pilots upon whose exploits Red Tails is based, are true American heroes. Their tale is an inspiring one, and it’s one that deserves the kind of notice that this film has been afforded. It’s regrettable, then, that Red Tails isn’t a masterpiece on par with classic war films like Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day, or All Quiet on the Western Front.

Red Tails is undoubtedly an uplifting film. Too bad it doesn’t soar.

Grade: C+

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