I love World War II aerial dogfight movies. In terms of film and television, it’s a part of the war that’s about as underrepresented as the North African campaign. As such, when you’re a fan of these, you take what you can get. Sometimes you get Tora! Tora! Tora!, sometimes you get Catch-22 (which I’m only including here in a loose sense, since it’s obviously not terribly “about” fighter battles), and sometimes you get Memphis Belle. Not that I don’t like Memphis Belle, mind, it’s just a middling movie, all things considered.
Red Tails, though, is just terrible. Terrible, terrible, terrible. If this really is the last blockbuster George Lucas will be involved with, he’s somehow managed to go out on a worse note than Revenge of the Sith.
Director: Anthony Hemingway
Release date: January 20th, 2012
Red Tails tells the story of the Tuskegee airmen, the first squadron of African American pilots in the United States armed forces, pilots that were grounded through the large portion of the war, with the prevailing wisdom among top brass that black pilots were mentally incapable of performing with the same skill as white pilots. Their commander Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard), through dogged persistence and force of will, fights to get the boys a real mission, where they can finally show the stateside commanders what they can really do. Inspirational storyline! Main characters with opposing worldviews! A cocky pilot (David Oyelowo) that falls in love and grows as a person! Also, it’s interracial love! Breaking down barriers! Cuba Gooding Jr. smoking a pipe! The young one with an obsession with Black Jesus (Tristan Wilds)! Bryan Cranston as “Quickly Abandoned Racist Colonel!” Ne-Yo sings a song! Nazis are mean! Honestly, if you’ve got an ounce of storytelling sense, you can probably call this one blow by blow by the end of the first twenty minutes.
This movie is just an absolute mess. It’s actually taken a whole twenty-four hours of mulling over this picture to put it all into words that aren’t just, “MOVIE BAD STAY AWAY.” It’s not like Sucker Punch, where the content is just so offensively terrible that the critical ire comes easier than breathing. This a movie where almost nothing works, period. Important character moments happen entirely off-screen or in such a hackneyed way that I was awestruck at the lack of talent on display here from people that I’m generally a big fan of. This film was directed by someone who directed episodes of The Wire and Treme, and written by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder. Ridley’s part of the writing team of Three Kings, and McGruder’s the creator of The Boondocks. You can tell that from the young kid that loves Black Jesus that’s a few days of ‘fro growth from actually being a 1940s Huey Freeman.
Characters are archtypical and played flatly. The squad captain that copes with war from the bottom of a bottle (Nate Parker) somehow manages to do so while not seeming drunk at all, though we’re told his booze habit is wrecking his leadership when his agonizing self-pity isn’t. Bad acting, or bad direction? Even money, I say. This is sadly a pretty common thread through this film. Take Terrence Howard, an actor I’ve got a fair amount of respect for. He seems to have one mode in this film: Speaking Deliberately In Order To Inspire Others. What sort of man do you have to be to be the black commander of the first and only black squadron in the armed forces? I’d like to know, but I don’t get a lick of it from this picture.
Let’s be fair here for a moment. The big-action dogfights here are pretty spectacular to behold. The second major one in particular, showcasing the squad’s first mission escorting heavy bombers to their targets, is tautly constructed and a genuinely thrilling diversion from the less-than-an-hour slog it took to get there. The other two major dogfights, while enjoyable, don’t measure up quite as well, though they’re still entertaining enough. The problem here is the CGI. First off, the CGI is always going to look funky in a 1940s aesthetic. There’s just a level of cleanness and shine to the digital assets that is always going to look out of place in this sort of near-past timeframe. It’s easier to construct a stylized, digital world set in a more Victorian era (Sweeney Todd does this decently) for instance than it is to create a digital world that shouldn’t look that terribly different from our own.
That said, the CGI work is still sub-par to the point of scandal, considering this is coming from ILM, one of the best effects houses in the industry. There’s some pretty strikingly bad-looking green screen backgrounds here, and I just watched Hausu. There’s just absolutely no sense of realism to any of the dogfights, exciting as they are to behold. That’s not a problem if you’re making Star Wars, since the entire point of Star Wars is to enjoy a story in a heightened state of reality, but when you’re telling the real life story of real life pilots in the not-distant past, there at least needs to be some level of believability in the effects work. I’m not asking for a Hell’s Angels-style scene with hundreds of actual planes in the sky, but when the men in these fighter planes seem to be flying with about as much physical effort as Luke in his X-Wing, I have to call bullshit.
If you want a story of the Tukgegee pilots and their struggles that actually gives the story the weight and the care it deserves, seek out a copy of the 1995 HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen, and give this film a wide berth. I can’t believe we waited twenty-three years for this.