Saturday, January 21, 2012

Red Tails 

Bravery, Patriotism And Heroism, For First Among Equals

The cast of Anthony Hemingway's "Red Tails", with Nate Parker, center, and David Oyelowo, right, in sunglasses. 

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, January 21, 2012

Anthony Hemingway's "Red Tails" follows the path of the African-American fighter pilot regiment known as The Tuskegee Airmen, who had been grounded by the U.S. Army during World War Two, but later finally flew missions first as protectors, then as fighters against the Nazis as they invaded Italy.  George Lucas's executive-produced film, which opened in the U.S. and Canada yesterday, takes place in that country in 1944.  (For the record, Mr. Lucas has been trying to get "Red Tails" to the big screen for about 25 years, if not more.  Studios told him all-black casts would mean marketing difficulties for them.)

Under the overall command of Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard), led by flight leader Easy (Nate Parker) and galvanized by the plane-flying heroics of Lightning (David Oweloyo), the team of Tails fly dozens of life-threatening missions and use their skill to execute successful flights to defeat the Nazis.  Populated by immense Lucasfilm special effects -- where the money in this film is really spent -- the flight raids are astounding and death-defying to watch, but the personal stories of the African-American pilots themselves are dwarfed by the effects, and have neither the depth, significance nor investigation to make "Red Tails" more than the shallow tribute to American history's largely unsung heroes that it is.

Written by John Ridley and "Boondocks" creator Aaron McGruder, the dialogue lacks punch and is wooden and mechanical, echoing clichés of familiar rah-rah inspiration in gung-ho war films.  The film's pride in its heroes and its patriotism is its hallmark, and while there are rousing and moving moments here and there, they feel muted even as they are exalted. 

There's an oddly distant feeling I had while watching scenes that were supposed to have greater emotional impact, and worse yet, "Red Tails" works hard to make you emote, and sometimes for the wrong reasons.  I was infuriated by an event that occurs late on in the film and the reaction to it by some of the fellow characters.  It felt hollow, as did "Red Tails" as a whole, and I wish a deeper exploration of the characters' lives had occurred. 

Much of "Red Tails" is cursory, including its exploration of the racial discrimination the Tuskegee Airmen faced from their white compatriots within the U.S. Army.  With everybody's most hated villains the cardboard Nazis on the attack, little else is explained other than the obvious.  I expected more, especially from such proficient and skilled writers as Mr. Ridley and Mr. McGruder, and I was hugely disappointed.

"Red Tails" looks like a pastiche of sorts, with a fleeting love story that withers in the wind despite good intentions.  As soon as Mr. Hemingway's film gets close to achieving a sense of depth and richness, it retreats.  We never get sufficient time to know any of the characters, only that one of them, Easy, drinks, and that another, Lightning, wants to marry Sofia (NCIS star Daniela Ruah), a beautiful Italian woman he meets.  Yet there was enough time to spend with the courageous men: "Red Tails" is more than two hours long, and a largely empty, unremarkable experience.  The characters aren't drawn solidly; they essentially float.

Is there a fervor, spirit and pride that "Red Tails" evokes?  Undoubtedly, and this is what many audience members and patriots, particularly African-Americans, will feel.  Yet the groundswell that is achieved is belated, forced and underwhelming.  Much of what leads to the hurrah moments are unfulfilling, making the inevitable jubilation and triumph Pyrrhic.  "Red Tails" -- and the film's sound in the theater I saw it in was muted in comparison to the preceding ear-splitting trailers -- may have played better on television; indeed HBO's TV movie on The Tuskegee Airmen starring Laurence Fishburne several years ago had a gravitas that Mr. Hemingway's film sorely lacks.

Mr. Oweloyo has charisma and an expressive way, and he's a talented British actor who will go on to do great things.  (He played the greedy corporate man in last year's "Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes".)  Cuba Gooding Jr. plays a Major who mostly scowls or wears one expression, often with a pipe in his mouth.  He looks as if he'll bite that pipe stem off.  Mr. Howard as always is a palpable presence, and effective here as the film's touchstone of pride, confidence and audacity.  Mr. Parker gets better with each film, and has a natural leadership and intelligence that rounds his character, whose surface treatment is undeserved.  The camaraderie among the black regiment in the film is strangely stilted.  The film's opening titles, in bright red and black shadow, look amateurish, like something out of a low-budget '70s film.

Terrence Blanchard's music score is discreet unlike his score in Spike Lee's "Miracle At St. Anna", from which a few jazz notes are borrowed.  (Mr. Lee's film, about the ground forces of Buffalo Soldiers of the all-African-American infantry forces in World War Two, was forceful and compelling.)  Some of the lines in Mr. Ridley and Mr. McGruder's script may be borrowed too, namely those referring to an episode where the word "colored" is delineated amidst mixed company.  Forgive the minor quibble, but if memory serves correctly, I believe I may have heard those lines before Mr. McGruder wrote them -- I won't spoil them -- at least 20 years ago.  Regardless, the writer's usual sharpness and cutting edge social commentary is absent from "Red Tails".

When all is said and done, "Red Tails" fires brightly but fizzles early.  Indeed, there was so much more to be done, and despite the admirable efforts of the actors, many behind the camera dropped the ball.  As they say in the trade: no guts, no glory.  The real Tuskegee Airmen deserved a better tribute than the one "Red Tails" gives them.

With: Tristan Wilds, Elijah Kelley, Leslie Odom Jr., Method Man, Kevin Phillips, Matthew Marsh, Lee Tergesen, Aml Ameen, Okezie Morro, Barnaby Kay, Bryan Cranston, Gerald McRaney.

"Red Tails" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some sequences of war violence.  The film's running time is two hours and five minutes.

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