Silver Screen: Red Tails **
The zippy World War II actioneer Red Tails is a prime example of good intentions getting in the way of a good idea. Though helmed by veteran TV director Anthony Hemingway, it was prominently produced by George Lucas, who has cited the film as a passion project fifteen years in the making. The movie certainly has, if not the reek, then the faint odor of Lucas: wrenchingly awkward dialogue, over-reliance on too-shiny computer effects, and a simplistic story that is neglected in favor of both an obsessive focus on technical details as well as a poorly executed attempt at a broader conceit.
The core of the story, based on the real heroic exploits of African American fighter pilots in World War II, is compelling enough as to be unaffected by the film's flaws. You can hardly muck up the truly astounding bravery of a group of men risking their lives to defend a country that scorns them, and the wonderfully well-rounded cast helps keep this notion at the forefront.
Red Tails' impressive ensemble is led by Nate Parker and David Oyelowo as “Easy” Perkins and “Lightning” Little, best friends whose personality conflicts have them at odds. The straitlaced Easy is the squad leader despite Lightning's superior aerial abilities, but Lightning's impulsive antics make him a risk. In truth, though, it's Easy who's at risk of falling apart beneath the crushing stress of his position and a burgeoning alcohol problem.
The remainder of the cast is rounded out by a who's who of talented TV actors, mostly from the highest-caliber HBO and AMC programming: Tristan Wilds, Andre Royo, Michael B. Jordan, Bryan Cranston, Gerald McRaney. There's also multitalents like Method Man and Ne-Yo, not to mention a couple of genuine movie stars, Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr.
The uneven script from John Ridley and Aaron McGruder (of Boondocks fame), working from John B. Holway's book, serves some of the performers much better than others. The charismatic Wilds, who dominated scenes in The Wire with his quiet intensity but lightened up as the romantic lead in The Secret Life of Bees, gets a plum role as the brave but too impulsive Ray Gun, although he eventually gets caught up in a prisoner-of-war subplot that's too rushed to generate any suspense. His Wire castmates Royo and Method Man mostly just provide commentary as wisecracking mechanics, but they do it well. The soulful Jordan, however, nabs only a few scenes early as an uptight newcomer to the squadron before vanishing entirely into the background.
It should be noted that not all of the actors do the script any favors, namely Cuba Gooding Jr., whose entire performance as upper-level military brass consists of alternately chomping on and waving around a pipe. It's such an embarrassingly prop-reliant gimmick that viewers will start to wonder if the pipe is wagging the Cuba, so to speak. He's pretty much the opposite of Terrence Howard, who commands real authority in his handful of scenes as the squad's greatest defender among the war strategists.
Lucas has stated that it was his intention to make an old-fashioned war picture evocative of the genre's post-war heyday, a time when a big-budget war epic would never have featured a predominantly black cast. It's an interesting concept, but one that Lucas and Hemingway execute too clumsily. The script constantly blurs the line between charming throwback and condescending simplicity. Do we really need a recurring German pilot character to serve as the villain? Was it not enough already knowing that they're Nazis? (Lucas's buddy Steven Spielberg pulled the same dumb stunt in Saving Private Ryan.) Must the evil German pilot say, “Show them no mercy”? That’s kind of implied by the whole Nazi thing.
The candy-colored dogfights are excitingly rendered but never conjure up any sense of danger. Red Tails isn't a movie about war being hell, it's about celebrating the derring-do of those brave young men in the sky. But therein lies Lucas's fundamental mistake. The elements of a vintage war blockbuster that stand out as so jarring today aren't overly broad characters or stilted dialogue-- in many cases, the films of that era far outstripe their modern imitators-- it's the glamorization of combat. For proper effect, Red Tails need not have the gritty verisimilitude of Saving Private Ryan's famed beach landing sequence, but these dogfights lack even the danger of an X-wing spacefight. That seems a great disservice to the very experience the film seeks to celebrate.
Though far more modestly budgeted, the 1995 TV movie The Tuskegee Airman is the superior cinematic approach to the same inspirational history, albeit from a slightly different angle. That cast wasn't too shabby, either-- Laurence Fishburne, Andrew Braugher, Mekhi Phifer, Courtney B. Vance, John Lithgow, and even an up-and-coming young actor named Cuba Gooding Jr.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.