Red Tails is a long gestating project from George Lucas about the Tuskegee Airmen during WWII and the results are a good ole fashion war movie that overcomes its shortcomings through a likable cast and great action.
George Lucas didn’t direct this film, that would be Anthony Hemingway, but he has been talking about making this for years, having a real passion for the material. Right from the get go the tone of the film is set with the over the top, old school propaganda feel that paints our heroes as great and honorable Americans and the Nazi’s as the scum of the earth. The face of the enemy is put on the lead Nazi pilot and he is a cartoon of a character, evil to the core. That sort of juxtaposition to our good natured heroes is a perfect set up to how you should perceive Red Tails and it meets that tone from start to finish; root for the heroes as they eradicate evil on the other side of the battle.
The film is a fun action ride, but it isn’t without its problems. The 2nd act has a couple issues in the relationships between a few of the characters and the film forces emotion to try and create some drama in the film. The film’s leads are a pair of good friends, Easy and Lightning, and the chemistry between the actors who play them, Nate Parker & David Oyelowo, is one of the highlights of the picture. That is why it is such a shame that they had to force such a wedge between the two while giving Easy such a cheap weakness in his apparent alcoholism. To make matters worse they imply that Easy’s drinking is causing a ton of problems for him and the squadron and then supply not one shred of evidence that shows him doing so. So when Lightning gets pissed at Easy over his “drinking problem” he just looks like an idiot, leaving the audience perplexed.
Lightning is also part of a romance sub-plot with a young Italian girl and while a lot of the film’s non-flying plotline is dedicated to them it still feels forced and doesn’t resonate. It’s not terrible, but it seems like wasted time and effort when there are a lot of other elements that work better. The film is at its best when the Tuskegee’s are together and seeing a couple who can’t communicate because they don’t speak each others’ language is not nearly as compelling or as endearing as the filmmakers thought it was. Outside an awkward, at times, performance from Cuba Gooding Jr. (though his hamming it up worked in the context of the film I think) and a couple of slow spots those were my only real complaints, they just took up way too much time at the end of the 2nd act.
There is a lot to like in the film and I found myself enjoying my time in the theater far more than taking issue with it. I mentioned before that the camaraderie among the pilots was one of the strengths of the film and the ensemble they assembled is a joy to watch. Parker and Oyelowo are both solid as our leads, even if they couldn’t elevate the weak elements placed upon them, but they aren’t alone in doing good work in the film. Elijah Kelly injects a lot of humor into the film and is also able to pull off the dramatic chops asked of him. Leslie Odom Jr., Tristan Wilds, Kevin Phillips, and Michael B. Jordan round out the rest of the main faces we get to know and all do the best they can do when they get a bit of screen time. The banter in the planes is particularly good and it is just a blast to watch these guys go back and forth with one another. We believe these guys have been together for some time and we never once doubt their dedication to one another. Also appearing is Terence Howard who has nothing to do, Bryan Cranston makes an impact in the two or three scenes he gets, and Andre Royo is a lot of fun as the lead mechanic. The cast is full of interesting and diverse characters and Hemingway deserves some credit for making the bond between these guys so natural.
The main reason to check out Red Tails is for the action and the excellent work by the effects teams at ILM and Pixomondo. Some of the dogfights are breathtaking and they get a lot of suspense out of each individual set piece. All the action is easy to see, feels fresh, and doesn’t have a shoddy shot in the mix. The film’s first two big flying scenes are the best the film has to offer, but the later make the most of their limitations. Those limitations are due to the history the film is based off of and the fact that the Red Tails are forced to stay with their bombers and not get all flashy. That doesn’t mean they aren’t able to create some suspense and solid action beats out of these scenes, they just don’t allow for the versatility of some of the earlier sequences. Regardless, the action in Red Tails is top notch and will rank high up on the best of the genre after it’s all said and done.
Red Tails might be a little too gung ho and old school for some, but the film doesn’t try to hide where its inspirations lie and I think it is exactly the film it sets out to be. It could have executed a few elements a bit better, probably been a tad shorter, but there is a lot to like in Red Tails for war buffs and action fans alike. The flying sequences are some of the best you will ever see in the theater and I am glad Lucas was able to finally bring this story to the big screen. He saw some great material and he and his team executed quite affectively. Beyond the action I really like the cast of characters and would love to see the prequel and sequel Lucas is already talking about to complete the Tuskegee Airmen story.
Red Tails is a B