David Oyelowo as Joe ‘Lightning’ Little
Nate Parker as Marty ‘Easy’ Julian
Ne-Yo as Andrew ‘Smoky’ Salem
Elijah Kelley as Samuel ‘Joker’ George
Tristan Wilds as Ray ‘Junior’ Gannon
Bryan Cranston as Maj. William Mortamus
Daniela Ruah as Sofia
Josh Dallas as Ryan
Cuba Gooding Jr. as Major Emanuelle Stance
Michael B. Jordan as Maurice ‘Bumps’ Wilson
Terrence Howard as Colonel A.J. Bullard
Theo James as Mortamus’ intel Officer
Method Man as Sticks
Gerald McRaney as General Luntz
Andre Royo as Chief ‘Coffee’ Coleman
Lee Tergesen as Colonel Jack Tomilson
Marcus T. Paulk as David ‘Deke’ Watkins
Directed by Anthony Hemingway
“Red Tails” features some fantastic aerial dogfights and an inspiring story, but a weak script, inconsistent score, and disappointing acting prevent it from being the great film it could have been.
“Red Tails” is inspired by the true stories of the Tuskegee Airmen. If you’re not familiar with them, go Google them. We’ll be here when you get back.
In the middle of WWII, the US Armed Forces has begun experimenting with using African American pilots in the war effort. And while the pilots have exceeded the ridiculously low expectations set for them, they have yet to be truly tested in air combat.
Led by Marty ‘Easy’ Julian, the men are eager to join the fight on the front lines. In fact, the reckless Joe ‘Lightning’ Little is too eager to join the fight. But they get their chance when they’re asked to escort a bomber squadron on an attack run. The men soon find all prejudices left behind as they enter a fight for survival in the skies over Germany.
“Red Tails” is rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence.
“Red Tails” has two really strong points. The first is the aerial battle scenes. The dog fights are executed in a way that’s really easy to follow and you even start understanding some of the pilot’s tactical maneuvers. This is pretty rare in any war movie. And the visual effects of the planes are stunningly realistic. You could get rid of the rest of the movie and just watch these battle scenes and it would be worthwhile. And while 3D seems to go in and out of vogue, this movie might have actually been quite cool with a 3D presentation. Planes flying in and out of the screen would have been an impressive sight.
The other strong feature of “Red Tails” is the basic story itself. The history behind the Tuskegee Airmen is very compelling. These men were asked to fight for a country that thought they were inferior and they gave their lives for people that treated them as if they weren’t even human. Everybody doubted their capabilities yet they not only proved them wrong but they proved themselves to be equal, and in some cases better, pilots in every way. It’s not only important to honor what they did, but they serve as great examples to African-Americans today. In a world that primarily offers up rap artists, sports stars, and celebrities as role models to young black men and women, “Red Tails” shows them what real heroes can be.
Among the cast members, David Oyelowo stands out as Joe ‘Lightning’ Little. I have to admit that I was shocked to discover that not only is he British, but he was the evil pharmaceutical mogul from “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” He’s a good actor, but he really needs better material to work with in order to shine.
What Didn’t Work:
As any fan of George Lucas knows, “Red Tails” has been a passion project of the director for a very, very long time. So I have to admit that I was surprised by how Lucas seemed to cut corners with this production.
The first five minutes, in a way, embodies everything that is right and wrong with this movie. It starts out with an astonishing battle scene where a group of American bombers are being picked apart by German fighters. It’s mind blowing. But then we arrive at the first problem the dialogue. It’s incredibly wooden. In fact, a lot of the chatter between the pilots feels like it could have been written by the most inexperienced of Hollywood script writers. It’s actually written by John Ridley, best known for “Undercover Brother” and a story by’ credit on “Three Kings,” and Aaron McGruder who is best known for “The Boondocks.” I thought the dialogue might improve as the movie progressed, but it never did. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that most of the cast isn’t quite as seasoned as Cuba Gooding Jr. or Terrence Howard. The weak dialogue sounds even weaker when they deliver it.
As the opening progresses, another big problem is revealed the musical score by Terence Blanchard. It’s all over the map as far as tone. Part of it uses electric guitars and a more contemporary sound. Part of it features a full orchestral score. The end result is something that feels really inconsistent and more like a TV movie score than a theatrical score.
And just to nitpick, the opening credits feature a font so basic and generic that it looks like my 12 year old daughter created it in Powerpoint. It’s stunningly unprofessional looking. That, alone, is a nitpick but when you combine it with everything else it ends up making “Red Tails” feel like an amateur production that happened to have free reign at ILM for visual effects.
But beyond the opening five minutes, the problems with “Red Tails” all go back to the script. Besides the weak dialogue, the story is pretty random. For example, in one scene Lightning is happy and in love with his Italian girlfriend Sofia. The very next scene is him walking into a bar and immediately picking a fight with white officers. It didn’t make sense and seemed like a weak attempt by the writers to set up a scene where Lightning could complain about racism in the armed forces. It’s a justifiable complaint by the character, but the way it was written was amateurish. In another scene a pilot is returning to base in a damaged plane and bleeding to death, yet his fellow pilots take time to buzz the airfield and cheer and showboat. It didn’t seem like actions by pilots whose comrade could potentially be dying. Then there’s the issue of the running time. It’s about 2 hours long and it really feels excessive. There’s a lot of fat in this movie that could have been trimmed like an unnecessary scene where Lightning strafes a German destroyer. It looked really cool, but it added nothing to the story or the character. Lightning’s romance with Sofia also starts out promising enough but falls flat as he repeatedly professes his love for a woman he can’t even talk to. Anyway, you get the idea. I find it odd that Lucas had 20 years or more to get the script right, but he didn’t.
Overall, “Red Tails” doesn’t feel like the passion project of one of the richest men in the entertainment industry. Lucas is a notorious cheapskate and the areas where he opted to save money ended up being the areas that were most in need of experienced talent, and experienced talent can cost money. Lucas is also going to chalk up any criticisms of “Red Tails” to whiny fanboys, snooty critics, and haters, but the fact remains that Lucas needed someone with a critical eye to set this project straight. Instead he did what he wanted. Even the 800 lb gorilla could use some guidance on where to sit once in a while. And the Tuskegee Airmen certainly deserved Lucas’ best effort, but I don’t think they got it.
The Bottom Line:
If you’re into WWII movies, history, or the Tuskegee Airmen, then I think you’ll find “Red Tails” worth checking out. But if you care about dialogue and acting, then I think this movie will frustrate you because it’s so close to being a good movie, yet it falls short.