Mark Reviews Movies

Red Tails

RED TAILS

1 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Anthony Hemingway

Cast: Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Tristan Wilds, Daniela Ruah, Tristan Wilds, Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelley, Marcus T. Paulk, Andre Royo, Michael B. Jordan, Cliff Smith, Lee Tergesen, Lars van Riesen, Bryan Cranston

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some sequences of war violence)

Running Time: 2:05

Release Date: 1/20/12


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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 19, 2012

The Tuskegee Airmen served the United States with valor during World War II, taking to the skies and fighting an enemy in Europe that took institutionalized prejudice to its horrifying end. All the while, of course, they were struggling against the comparatively lesser but still despicable institutional racism of the military at the time—a military that, as reflected in the movie's epigraph, had an official stance that African Americans were "inferior" to whites and, hence, unfit for service as pilots. From the start, these pilots were belittled: They were not a unit; they were an "experiment."

What makes the Tuskegee Airmen's story unique is not that they fought for their country but that they did so in spite of the fact that their country would have rather they didn't. To ignore that is to miss the importance of the Tuskegee Airmen, and Red Tails does just that.

Save for one scene that has a pair of the pilots discussing the frustration of being a part of this unjust situation waiting to boil over just beneath the surface, the screenplay by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder sees them—ironically and unfortunately—merely as cogs in a machine. At best, the few characters that stand out in the squad that serves as the focus here are generic types—an entire historical experience whittled down to tormented commanding officer, a rebellious flyboy looking for glory, a new kid, and some other characters whose primary development comes from their nicknames.

After a prologue that foreshadows the need for better protection of American bombers, we meet up with the 332nd Fighter Group, stationed in Italy and relegated to making runs on German supply trucks and, to up the stakes for the superficial special effects, a train. Here, the characters are drawn out as much as they ever will be. Martin "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker) is the squad's captain, a man quite the opposite of his moniker, insisting that his men follow the rules. He also has a drinking problem, which comes into play for shallow reasons.

Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo) is the maverick of the group, which we gather when he disobeys Julian's direct order to attack the train from the front, so as to avoid any machine gun fire. Here's a man with a death wish; it seems he only has one because, well, someone in a collection of fighter pilots must have one for dramatic purposes. Little also has a romantic interest, a local woman named Sofia (Daniela Ruah) whom he spots while flying over the town outside of the base. Somehow, the two lock eyes as he passes overhead, and he has the fortune of being able to pick out exactly which house she lives in while he's on a short leave.

Their speedy romance, like so many of the other details of the story, is only significant in that it exists within the plot. It has no bearing on Little's character, except to give him a photograph to put in his cockpit to look at when the action in the sky gets hairy. Even when it does, though, the movie is surprisingly low-stakes. Without many readily identifiable characters, the screenplay uses one character on two separate occasions to suggest an actual threat to their lives.

Both times, conveniently, he manages to escape with his life, though the second time is debilitating—the results of which, oddly, kept off screen. As the character is still a secondary one, the two instances are only introduced to present Julian with a crisis of conscience on account of his drinking. A single German ace pilot (Lars van Riesen) hounds all of them in easily the most transparent bit of melodrama among a plentiful compilation of blatant melodramatic turns.

The performances are uniformly weak, but then again, when the dialogue is as stagnant as it is in Ridley and McGruder's script, it's difficult to fault the cast. During the flight sequences, the pilots are reduced to grating one-liners and exclamations, and the overtly digital visual effects only confound the sequences. Cuba Gooding Jr., in a performance that is based entirely on whether or not his character is chomping on an unlit pipe, plays a ranking officer in the unit, and Terrence Howard is Col. A.J. Bullard, who spends most of the movie in Washington, D.C., trying to convince the brass that his men can actually face German fighters in a dogfight. Howard imbues the role with an air of such quiet dignity that we can only imagine what he might have done with the character if he were not solely a function of the exposition.

He's part of the single scene that allows one of the airmen (Little) to voice his protestations about the state of their unit—wanting to do all they can but being repeatedly shut down simply because of the color of their skin—after being locked up for punching a vocal racist. It's the best scene in Red Tails—one that seems to come from an entirely other movie—because it openly addresses the heart of the Tuskegee Airmen story without any evasion. Sadly, the rest of the movie is all evasion.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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