'Red Tails' Takes a Nosedive
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
I had high hopes for the aerial battle scenes in "Red Tails," the new film chronicling the World War II exploits of the group of African-American fighter pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen, officially the 332nd Fighter Group/477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army. This group was segregated from the white units, subjected to bigotry, discriminated against on pretty much every level you can imagine, and did an amazing job of work anyway. Their achievement deserves to be vividly celebrated in film, and as I was saying, I was reasonably confident that it would be, at least in the dogfighting scenes.
And that's not just because the film's executive producer George Lucas, for all of his ever-more-evident liabilities as a filmmaker, has proved his chops when it comes to staging and shooting such material, as those who remember the first "Star Wars" movie, or "Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope" or whatever you want to call it, will enthusiastically attest. It's also because Lucas' video game division, LucasArts, also put out a pretty kick-ass video game called "Secret Weapons Over Normandy" that did an exceptional simulation of you-are-there shooting-Nazis-out-of-the-sky stuff.
In any event, my confidence was rewarded: The dogfight scenes, which, while a little noticeably CGIed, are well-paced, exciting, and full of nasty German planes piloted by nasty Germans getting blown up midair in a rousing fashion. Oh, and German airbases getting the hell strafed, or whatever you call it, out of them. Unfortunately, the material surrounding the dogfights isn't even close to being that good.
The picture starts at a turning point in the war, and its multiple story lines depict Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) defending his group against bigoted Army brass (the most stolidly unpleasant of the bunch of cranky white guys is portrayed convincingly by Bryan Cranston); a fraught friendship between a hotshot pilot (David Oyelowo) and his hard-drinking squadron captain (Nate Parker); a language-challenged romance between the hotshot and a young Italian beauty (Daniela Ruah); the travails of an enthused flyboy whose injuries first leave him vision-impaired and then land him in a German prisoner-of-war camp; and a bit more. All as Cuba Gooding Jr. walks around, smokes a pipe and calls his charges "son."
There's absolutely zero dramatic edge in the non-flying scenes. The bantering dialogue starts off as a sub-sub-sub-level pastiche of "Only Angels Have Wings" and gets staler from there. "You get us that mission, we will light up the board!" "You're lucky you're the best damn pilot we've got!" The movie is packed with non-gems such as these, which accompany scenes of such absolutely rote dramatic content and weight that they could have been strung together in an entirely different order and had exactly the same impact. And this is reasonably weird, because the screenwriter credited here, John Ridley, was also involved in the making of considerably more oddball fare, including "Three Kings" and "U-Turn." And director Anthony Hemingway has worked on not-aesthetically-homogenized TV series such as "The Wire."
How these two rolled out something as narratively flat and self-second-guessing as this -- not to mention not quite wasting, but ill-serving a cast that's packed from top to bottom with incredibly charismatic and engaging performers -- is a mystery. Until, again, you factor in that Lucas person and the aforementioned filmmaking liabilities. The film's executive producer has said, in interviews, that Hollywood powers that be were so resistant to making a film on this subject that he pretty much financed it himself, and good for him. But what does it profit a man to put his money where his mouth is on such a project, only to divest it of any soul in the actual creative process? More often than not, "Red Tails" feels like it's pandering to every focus group that it never even tested, if you get my meaning. It's so cautious as to be lifeless, which is a shame on a lot of levels. Dispiriting enough that the dogfights, good as they are, become kind of difficult to enjoy.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.