The opening minutes of Red Tails set the stage for what you can expect throughout the whole movie. It’s World War II, a group of American bombers are being escorted through enemy territory and the Germans have arrived to throw a wrench in the works. Planes swarm in a dance of CG aerial acrobatics until the camera focuses in on an American pilot who exclaims, “Germans! Let’s get ’em!” thus beginning two-hours of elementary dialogue interspersed with rote plotlines you could have easily predicted before walking in.
Using the heroics of the African American pilots that make up the Tuskegee 332nd Fighter Group to tell this “inspired by a true story”, Red Tails cherry picks and gives these boys a variety of cliched personality traits to keep the story moving forward.
First there’s “Easy” (Nate Parker), the squadron captain. He has a drinking problem you can be sure will get in the way sooner or later. Then there’s “Lightning” (David Oyelowo), a showboat who appears to have a death wish and on top of that he has fallen in love (of course) with a young Italian girl (Daniela Ruah). Then there’s Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds), but he doesn’t like the name “Junior” he wants to be called “Ray Gun” because he’s not a kid and, as we soon learn, he’d rather die than not be up in the air.
The list continues with the charismatic duo in “Smokey” played by R&B artist Ne-Yo and “Joker” played by Elijah Kelley, down to Cuba Gooding Jr. as Major Stance (who is never seen without a smile and his pipe hanging from his mouth) while Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard) is back in Washington fighting the good fight against a core of bigoted higher ranking muckety-mucks.
Truth be told, none of these characters are all that bad. In fact, I liked most of them and thought the actors did what they could with what they were given to turn them into a likable bunch of guys. Unfortunately, personable performances can’t save a shoddy script, laced with moments you knew were coming before they got there as Red Tails takes the easy way out in any and all circumstances with screen dialogue that wouldn’t even make most first drafts.
The Tuskegee fighter group became well known as bomber escorts and on their first mission one of the bomber pilots looks out his window and sees a black man flying one of the escort planes. He promptly gets on the radio and says something to the effect of, “It’s a colored pilot, don’t look for any support this time guys.” Each and every line of dialogue is this bone dry when it comes to thought and/or emotion. Trouble is, that’s just the kind of movie you’re looking at.
This isn’t an attempt at an epic piece of war history, it’s a PG-13 movie meant to occupy a two-hour void. Looking for nuance and plot development is a waste. Instead of attempting to actually develop and break down race relations, Red Tails screenwriters John Ridley and Aaron McGruder spend time getting “Lightning” a girlfriend and performing a surface level exploration of “Easy’s” drinking problem. Considering the way the story is told they have no choice but to dumb down the race aspect into cliched barroom brawls and snide remarks.
On the German side it gets even better as the scar-faced captain of the German pilots (Lars van Riesen) snarls and says, “Show no mercy,” while being dubbed “Pretty Boy” by the Tuskegee boys. He’s the group’s Red Baron and you better believe “Lightning” wants a piece of him.
As the story plays out, the Tuskegee boys get their chance and impressive aerial battles ensue amidst amateur editing and a modern day score from Terence Blanchard who, ironically enough, scored Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna telling the story of the all-black 92nd “Buffalo Soldiers” Division in World War II.
I don’t have much of a problem with this film, but I would never recognize it as quality cinema. It’s glossy, cheesy and second-rate, but I never got the impression it wanted to be anything more than that. It’s passable in those terms and the fighting scenes aren’t half-bad, at least when the actors don’t have to recite their first grade dialogue while cheesing for the camera as if they’re in a carnival photo booth.