This is our second review of Red Tails after Rob Beames’ review earlier. You can read that review HERE.
Taking time out from butchering the various franchises he has spent decades building, George Lucas’ latest venture sees him taking producer reins on his long-gestating war film Red Tails. Languishing in development limbo for years – purportedly because studios balked at the idea of a film with an all-black cast – the final product regrettably fails to live up to the worthy true story of the African American Tuskegee Airmen unit.
Pitched as a ragtag adventure pic, Red Tails certainly begins with a bang, as American soldiers engage in a dog fight with German planes. The film has a keen sense of spectacle right out of the gate – complete with strong visual effects, particularly as the Tuskegee Airmen turn a train into Swiss cheese – but then, so did Pearl Harbour. The problems arise primarily with the script, lazy and unbecoming of the inspiring tale it wants to tell, and tonal shifts which don’t tessellate too well when some of the grimmer narrative elements come into play.
Race relations is a tetchy issue at the best of times, yet when served up in a preoccupied action-adventure film, there’s a very real chance it will wind up malnourished, even patronising. Too often, Red Tails feels like an apology for the past rather than an authentic depiction of it; there’s no doubt the Airmen deserve a better treatment than this treacly, inoffensive hodge-podge.
It is pitched as an old-school adventure film with the new-school subversion of a race angle, but hits shamelessly on the nose thematically and runs the low gamut on charm, even if it is rather action-packed and as undemanding as they come. It also happens to be blessed with a strong cast, including Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., two The Wire alumni (Tristan Wilds, Andre Royo), and even a cameo from Byran Cranston as a racist white army officer. Problematically, this distinguished roster just isn’t given much more to do than chew through rote dialogue and sit in the shells of planes which were green-screened into the action in post-production.
The only thing more hollow than those fake cockpits are the characters, who face various stock troubles, ranging from alcoholism to, most ludicrously, a cheesy, insanely fast-tracked romantic subplot between one airman and a beautiful Italian woman who waved at his plane. Scribes John Ridley and Aaron McGruder mistake these hat-picked problems for nuance, but instead they feel tacked-on and superfluous, as if the dogfighting and race relations are not enough.
Easy though it is to knock the shonky script, the well-directed action sequences are difficult to argue with, beautifully shot and quite rightly accounting for much of the screen time. A moderately suspenseful set-piece involving an injured soldier trying to emergency land his plane is the stand-out, and makes one wonder why the studio didn’t release it in 3D.
While the action certainly provides intermittent thrills, the most interesting elements indeed involve the dismissive bureaucracy of the US Air Force, who view the all-black outfit as incompetent, giving them hand-me-down planes, and pawning them off on fool’s errands hoping they’ll give up and sling their hook. The racist bureaucrats on the Allied side are cartoonishly one-dimensional – such as Cranston’s character – but the film truly takes the cake when depicting the German soldiers, pulled straight out of the B-movie tradition and quite akin to the buffoonish Stormtroopers and campy Nazis who have appeared in some of Lucas’ other films.
There are a handful of effective scenes, such as a confrontation between Allied soldiers in a bar, but that is more down to the intense physicality of it than anything. The signposted dialogue throughout, meanwhile, is horrible, and the film is firmly locked into a mechanised repetition of following a set-piece with a forced dramatic interlude ad nauseum.
The biggest problem as the pic winds down, though, is the tone, which makes fleeting, fluffy plot points out of some grim subject matter, such as an escape from a concentration camp, which director Anthony Hemingway follows with a scene of a soldier jovially playing a ditty on his guitar. There is no ease here, no deftness – it leaves an uncomfortable feeling, and makes it difficult to feel enraptured or uplifted by the climax, which is in itself quite underwhelming.
For a film like this to succeed, it needs to drum up spirit and heart, but Red Tails, in spite of its technical sophistication and strong cast, feels immature and unsure of what it wants to be. It functions primarily as a reminder that Cuba Gooding Jr. is still alive and touting for work.
Red Tails is in UK cinemas now.