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'Red Tails' review - The dogfights are amazing, but the script never takes off

During World War II, the United States military was racially segregated much like the rest of the country. The “Tuskagee Airmen,” or 332nd Fighter Group, were the only African Americans allowed to pilot during the war. They were awesome and earned much acclaim from their missions in Italy and their work protecting fleets of bombers across Europe. Red Tails (IMDB page), produced by George Lucas, is an attempt to tell their story. If you’re looking for an honest retelling though, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Red Tails spends most of its screen time concentrating on aerial battles and grand speeches about racism, but fails to show the actual struggles these men all went through under the rule of Jim Crow.

Before I complain too much, I have to mention how stunning and exhilirating the battles of Red Tails are to watch. If there is one thing Star Wars has taught George Lucas (or one thing he continually brought to the table), it’s how to shoot an aerial battle. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, Lucas based the Star Wars X-Wing and Tie Fighter battles on aerial dogfights from classic films and footage of World War I. The way the planes move around in formation break off, and attack one another has that same fun rhythm and flow of a classic Star Wars battle. The only difference here is that the tie fighters are Nazi planes. Even the buzzing sounds of the engines when they zip past or spin around brings back memories. The speed and maneuverability of the ships also reminds me of the ships in Battlestar Galactica

As cool as watching a space battle take place during World War II is, the visuals are far more impressiv than any of the newer Star Wars movies. The visual effects team does an amazing job blending real aerial footage and locations with computer generated planes. The many Point-of-View (POV) shots from the cockpit and shaky cam shots help the film look quite convincing. Lucas and his director have learned a lot from series like Battlestar Galactica and Firefly, both of which offset their small CGI budgets by employing grittier filming techniques. It’s a pleasure to watch these dogfights.

Its not always a pleasure to listen to the pilots though. Oddly, despite the film’s director, Anthony Hemingway, and several of the cast coming from The Wire, a brilliant HBO series that ended its run a few years ago, the film’s characters do not live up to the battles they engage in. The problem is in the writing. The writers of Red Tails, John Ridley (Barbershop) and Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks), do a good enough job creating fun banter between pilots, but fail to give any of them realistic personalities, or enough screen time to flesh their characters out. Instead we get cliches like the captain who drinks on duty and a pilot who loses an eye.

The only pilot to get any actual story is Joe ‘Lightning’ Little (David Oyelowo). He falls in love with a nice Sicilian woman and often disobeys orders and single-handedly takes down huge targets, from a munitions train to a giant battle ship. How he survives these encounters is beyond me. His technique seems like a death wish: he flies directly in and then makes multiple passes, hardly caring enough to dodge all the enemy fire he must be taking. Germans must not have god aim. 

So Lightning may get a side story, but all of the important screen time is gien to the elder black actors on set: Cuba Gooding Jr. (Men of Honor) and Terrence Howard (Crash). These guys are undoubtedly good actors, but have both starred in so many black empowerment movies that they’ve both already played Tuskagee Airmen onscreen in the past. Their role (and really, only one of them would have been needed) is to deliver moving sermons to the black pilots when life gets them down. Howard must also speak words of inspiration and defiance to a bunch of racist white officers who want to shut the black pilot “experiment” down. Bryan Cranston, known for his roles in Malcolm in the Middle and Breaking Bad, leads these generals. All of this talking is nice, but we never really feel what these pilots went through. 

From the first battle, it is taken for granted that these black pilots are amazing and unstoppable. German fighters go down like crazy, but entire battles go by without a single Tuskagee “red tail” plane falling from the sky, and when a friendly plane does get hit, it’s often not a death sentence. The danger of war is mostly absent from Red Tails. Why are these pilots so amazing? I imagine that these men are so great because of the incredible struggles they had to go through to earn the right to fly a plane under Jim Crow, but that is just my best guess. A better movie would have spent more of its two hour run time on this than some of the silly side stories in Red Tails. In some ways it plays up the racism card, like when we need to hear a moving speech, but in the ways that count, we’re missing a piece of the story. 

I’m complaining a lot. More than I thought I would when I started this review. This is not because Red Tails is a horrible movie. It’s not. Visually, it’s a thrill to watch and though it has a lot of cliches, they are easy enough to laugh through if you’re having a good time. Many of the jokes between pilots also drew big laughs in the theater I was in. Despite it’s issues, Red Tails was a fun two hours and definitely a relief after spending an hour and a half watching the latest Underworld movie. If you’re able to step back and accept its flaws and general lack of tension, I recommend Red Tails.

Rating:  (Passable)

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