Red Tails (2012)
June 6, 2012 2 Comments
It’s 1944, and pervasive racism is jeopardising the future of America’s first (and at this point only) regiment of African-American fighter pilots. Under the tutelage of Major Emanuel Stance (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), the Tuskegee Airmen are left to fly second-hand planes and carry out the missions that nobody else wants to do. When Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) comes through with a mission worthy of their abilities, then, namely to escort a squadron of bombers until they can deliver their payload, Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo), Martin “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), Samuel “Joker” George (Elijah Kelley) and Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds) lead their fellow pilots in rising to the challenge.
Poor George Lucas. Last year The Help‘s Tate Taylor delivered a saccharine, thinly veiled and painfully safe morality tale to near-universally appreciative audiences and watched as it scored nominations for just about every broadcast-worthy Oscar category going. This year Lucas has a go, without any airs or graces, and is mercilessly shot down by anyone with access to so much as a sling shot. Red Tails is no masterpiece (or Star Wars, for that matter), it’s no discrimination-thwarting game-changer, but then it isn’t trying to be; it is, however, a perfectly fine slice of matinee entertainment, and one that cost Lucas years of his life and millions of his own dollars to make.
It goes without saying that the script is largely atrocious, but then, we knew it would be. Writing believable dialogue has never been Lucas’ strong point, and nothing’s changed. The plot thanklessly embellishes a genuinely important watershed moment in the battle for equal rights in American history, causing eyes to roll when really they should be clogged to the tear ducts with salt. Particularly unpalatable elements include a stock romance that clumsily navigates the language barrier as a young, unlikely couple come together against the odds; cries of shock and surprise from the cockpit as all-white, all-racist bombers stare out disapprovingly at what is blatantly green screen; and any sequence that shows a blind and/or unconscious pilot attempting to land a plane in the name of Black Jesus. Luckily, however, filmmaking is a collaborative artform.
Like Star Wars before it, this is an unofficial Saturday morning serial at its most cinematic, drawing on state-of-the-art technologies to deliver the action epic of your dizziest teenage daydreams. Having heeded fanboy criticism (though probably not directly) and hired another director to help realise his vision, Lucas has handed the reins to someone who can actually work with actors. However badly the film might be written, and that’s not at all to say that there aren’t genuinely inspired lines scattered throughout (“politicking” is my new favourite word), director Anthony Hemingway holds a steady line between cheese and cheers, producing a movie with just enough heart and soul to offset the schmaltz.
Red Tails’ biggest asset, however, is its impressive cast. Although Howard and Gooding Jr. undoubtedly provide reliably strong support from the sidelines (the former chewing scenery while the latter works his pipe), it’s the airmen themselves who ultimately steal the show. Elevating their exchanges with banter and bravado, and injecting some much needed personality into the interchangeable dogfights themselves, Parker, Oyelowo, Kelley and Wilds work up a charismatic comradery that helps distract from the film’s shortcomings. Flawed heroes (even if they are only given one character weakness apiece), their relationships are just that little bit more complex than those of your average blockbuster. It’s just a pity that the film’s apparent endorsement of equality doesn’t quite stretch to the white supporting cast, few of whom make any real impression.
While the results might be slight, with its movie-of-the-week treatment of intolerance, predictable plotting and overreliance on CGI (surprised?) robbing the film of any real weight, Red Tails is undeniably entertaining. With Howard and Gooding Jr. having previously appeared in comparatively sober Tuskegee-centric movies (Hart’s War and HBO’s The Tuskegee Airmen respectively), Lucas’ pipe-dream is undoubtedly – but no less commendably – a different beast altogether. And to think: nobody even has to shit in a pie.
As with John Carter, I just wish I could give it another quarter star.