Tuesday, January 24, 2012

It Came From The Cineplex: Red Tails

I had high hopes for this movie as I took my seat in the theater. It's an interesting story about a period of history I find endlessly fascinating. Then this credit flashed on the screen:

Executive Producer: George Lucas

Uh-oh. The man responsible for unleashing the Star Wars Prequels onto the world. My first thought was, "I have a bad feeling about this." Then this credit popped up on the screen:

Inspired by true events

Oh boy. The dreaded "Inspired by" credit. Few credits can inspire as much dread in me as this one. If the movie says, "Based on true events," then chances are it'll be a fairly accurate depiction of the story in question, with only a few embellishments to make it more exciting for the silver screen. "Inspired by true events" means what you're about to see is loosely based on a story your friend heard his bus driver's grandpa tell his butcher once. The only credit scarier than "Inspired by" is "And starring Rosie O'Donnell."

Set in 1944, Red Tails tells the true life story of the Tuskegee Airmen, a division of black US air force pilots who were grudgingly allowed to fly routine patrols in worn out, hand-me-down planes from their base in Italy. The pilots sadly realize that even in the service of their country they will never be treated as equals.

But when the U.S. begins losing too many B-52s in its bombing runs, the military decides to give the Tuskegee airmen a chance. Their commanding officer manages to get them supplied with new and proper planes (complete with tails painted bright red, hence the title), they succeed in protecting the bombing missions and make a difference in the war. The all white bombing squads reluctantly accept the Tuskegee pilot's help and they become the most requested escort crew in the war.

Supposedly Red Tails has been a dream project of George Lucas since the 1980s. Unable to find financial support from any major studios, he financed the picture out of his own pocket. Lucas has since blasted Hollywood, saying they wouldn't fund the film due to its all-black cast. Personally I think they shunned it because they got a peek at the script.

The movie could have been great, but like so many historical films, it plays it safe by focusing on one small bright part of the story, ignoring the struggle and strife that occurred before and the sometimes tragic outcomes that happened after.

The acting ranges from fair to downright awful. The pilots are played by relatively unknown actors who manage not to embarrass themselves (for the most part). I can't say the same for Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrance Howard though. Gooding plays Major Emanuel Stance, the superior officer of the pilots, and is constantly chomping on a pipe that doesn't ever seem to emit any smoke. In fact he looks a lot like a kid who found his dad's pipe and is pretending to smoke it.

Terrance Howard plays Col. A. J. Bullard, commander of the base. All the pilots call him "The Old Man," despite the fact that he appears to be the same age as everyone else in the picture. Maybe it's just tradition to call the C.O. "Old Man" regardless of age? Bullard seems incapable of speaking in anything but motivational speeches, which grow tiresome halfway through the first one.

Because this is a WWII movie, it of course needs a Nazi villain. The script dutifully provides us with an evil German pilot that the Red Tails nickname "Pretty Boy." How they could have possibly got a good enough look at his face to give him this moniker as they whiz by his plane at hundreds of miles an hour is left to hour imaginations. He dutifully turns up in every aerial battle no matter where it takes place. "Pretty Boy" is the consummate cartoonish Nazi, complete with fencing scar!

The film is also riddled with cliche after cliche, which is somewhat to be expected in a war picture. This one trowels it on thicker than Lucille Ball's makeup though. In addition to the usual war time cliches, the script also stocks up on the racial cliches as well. It's like an extra large stuffed crust cliche pizza.

The script has a very non-committal tone. Over and over we're told unsavory details about various characters, but there's never any evidence of these failings. For example, we're told that squad leader "Easy" (Yes, all the pilots have annoying nicknames) has a drinking problem. We see him tenatively take a few sips from a flask, but at no time in the film does he ever seem like he's under the influence, or his judgement impaired. If he's supposed to be an alcoholic, he's the most competant one I've ever seen.

We're also told that his best friend "Lightning" is not only the best pilot in the war, but also a notorious ladies man. However we only ever see him woo a single woman. In fact near the end of the film he even proposes marriage to her. That's considered womanizing?

The writing credits don't list George Lucas, but the cringe-worthy dialogue has the tell tale signs of his greasy fingerprints all over it. There's no way he didn't have some input on the script. No one but George Lucas could write dialogue like, "How you like that, Mr. Hitler?"

There's also an appalling lack of period detail in the dialogue as well. At one point a commanding officer tells a pilot to "man up." I'm pretty sure no one ever used that phrase until a couple of years ago. Certainly no one ever said it (nor would understand what the hell it meant) in 1944. Maybe that's where we are now as a society. In order to lure the coveted teen audience to a movie, an historical script has to eschew accuracy for the "kewl" factor.

Another unmistakable Lucas touch: Brian Cranston (of AMC's Breaking Bad) plays a bigoted soldier named General Mortamus. Jesus Christ, George! What next, Seargent Murderman and Corporal Evildude? This isn't the Star Wars universe, George. Charles Dickens used to give his characters evocative names as well, but he got away with it because he was a good writer.

The film also lacks a proper climax. Near the end we're told that the U.S. is planning a daring bombing raid on Berlin, deep in the heart of Nazi territory. The Red Tails are assigned to protect the bombers as they make this desperate strike against the enemy. The battle begins and is quite thrilling for a few minutes. Then one of the bombers loses an engine and is forced to turn around and head back to base. Most of the Red Tails then take on the thrilling task of following the crippled bomber to see it safely back home. Wait, what about the Berlin raid? Did it succeed? Was it a miserable failure? Apparently it's none of our business, as it's never mentioned again..

I will give credit where credit is due: the aerial battles all look spectacular. Some of them even manage to look a little Star Wars-y, which I guess is inevitable, since George Lucas used WWII fighter footage as inspiration for his space battles.

Pros (sadly, this will be a short list indeed):
• Cool aerial battles

That's all I've got.

• Corny script which would make John Wayne blush with embarrassment. It reads like a checklist of war movie and black struggle cliches.

• Horrible dialogue that is often inappropriate for the period.

• Lack of period sensibility. In one of the subplots, Tuskegee airman "Lightning" meets and falls in love with an Italian woman and after a brief courtship, he proposes to her. I have a very hard time believing that in 1940s Italy the sight of a black man and a white woman holding hands and kissing in public would not draw some sort of negative attention. To pretend otherwise in order to shoehorn a love story into the script is ridiculous, and an insult to the men who suffered through such discrimination.

• Weak climax to the film, as the Berlin bombing run is ignored so we can watch thrilling scenes of fighter planes escorting a wounded bomber back to base.

• Focus on one small upbeat portion of the story, as the more interesting (and sadly, less happy) incidents go unmentioned.

What could have been a great film is unfortunately torpedoed by a ham-fisted and cliched script. George Lucas recently stated he's going to retire from film making. I can't believe I'm saying this, but if this is the best he can do, maybe retirement's not such a bad idea. I give Red Tails a C.


  1. you would do much better to seek out the HBO produced Feature Film, Tuskegee Airmen, starring Lawrence Fishbourne from the 1990's; well made, factual, NOT corny. solid B+

  2. I've heard good things about the HBO version, but haven't seen it. Oddly enough, Cuba Gooding Jr. stars in that version as well!


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