Red Tails

14 Feb

Title: Red Tails
Year: 2012
Director: Anthony Hemingway
Writers: John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, with story by Mr. Ridley, based on a book by John B. Holway
Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Elijah Kelley, Ne-Yo, Tristan Wilds, Michael B. Jordan, Bryan Cranston, Method Man, Andre Royo, Gerald McRaney
MPAA Rating: PG-13, some sequences of war violence
Runtime: 125 min
IMDb Rating: 5.9
Rotten Tomatoes: 36%
Metacritic: 46

In the late-eighties, George Lucas, already very well established after his work on Star Wars and Indiana Jones, heard the story of the Tuskegee Airmen and began developing Red Tails, aiming for a 1992 release date, wanting to make a really detailed trilogy of films. After that stalled and no draft seemed to satisfy him he settled for just a single film focusing on the combat part of the story. The film kept getting delayed, some of the surviving Tuskegee Airmen visited Skywalker Ranch to be interviewed, Mr. Lucas got access to the actual mission logbooks, but no real action was made on the project until 2007, about two decades after it first originated, when John Ridley was hired to write a new screenplay.

What caused this whole delay was the fact that major film studios didn’t want to fund a project with a cast that pretty much consisted in its entirety of African American actors and that had no major role for a white actor. So what happened is that Mr. Lucas put up the money himself, every single dollar of the $58 million budget is his, as this film is his true passion project and he just wanted to see it come to life. So of course I was very curious to see how this would all pan out, I wanted to see why George Lucas, a man I really admire and respect (no matter how much he wants to tamper with the original Star Wars trilogy), was so keen to get this project off the ground.

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is indeed one that’s seemingly too good to be true, the type of tale you can’t really make up and that just begs for a movie treatment. These were the African American pilots in the Tuskagee training program during World War II, ones that were met with doubt and segregated during that era, being kept mostly on the ground while the white men saved the day. However, to help win the war, the Pentagon has no choice but to get these untested pilots up in the air, just as the program was seemingly on the brink of cancellation.

Like I said, the story is pretty formidable really. The film, however, even though you can tell was made with the best intentions and a lot of love, is a whole different matter. The characters are just terribly flat and one-dimensional, the dialogue is way too corny, and even the story is just sprinkled like crazy with unnecessary clichés in order to tug at our heartstrings. It’s kind of shocking that such a great story was reduced to this, even more so when you consider that this is a film that has been in development for over two whole decades, you’d think that that would have been more than enough time to fine-tune every little element, and not leave it looking as messy as it does here. It sucks that such a worthy and heroic story was reduced to a pile of clichés in a movie that, while entertaining, never once comes close to realizing its full potential.

It’s not as though Red Tails is a terrible movie, because it honestly isn’t. The action sequences are actually really well-done, probably having more than a bit of something to do with the fact that Mr. Lucas studied World War II aerial combat for the space acrobatics performed by the X-Wings and TIE Fighters in Star Wars, and the story is still there and it’s still awesome. It’s just that I couldn’t get over the fact that there was clearly so much more to tell and in much better ways. I wanted a film that truly paid respect to their heroism; something that this one did, surely, but only to an extent, as I think there could have been far more focus on the racial issues that made their circumstances all the more complex, and with them their heroism all the more stunning.

The fact that this film squandered the great opportunities this story provided and instead settled for a mediocre film full of generic moments that will surely be used by history teachers is the thing that prevents me from giving Red Tails a recommending grade. The acting is okay, and we have a few really great actors in this bunch, including Andre Royo, Michael B. Jordan and (the mighty) Bryan Cranston, but that trio of performers are given small roles with little screen-time, and even the ones that do get it are given characters that are just stereotypical character types and that make for really forgettable characters and thus the performances seem just as stale.

The fact that the film is so full of predictable situations makes it seem as though there wasn’t a chance to fully research the subject; that the characters are just one single generic trait stretched to its limits makes it seem as though the filmmakers didn’t have the opportunities they did to interview these men; that the dialogue is so dull makes it seem as though this was a first draft of the screenplay. Nothing here makes it seem as though this was a film twenty years in the making. It was made out of love and you have to respect that, and props have to be given to Mr. Lucas for actually bringing this story to life, but you can’t shake away the feeling that it was nowhere as good as it could have been.

Grade: C+


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