Friday, January 20, 2012

Red Tails

Review by Pete Roche

Academy-Award winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. and woulda-been War Machine Terrence Howard have played WWII pilots before:  Gooding appeared in a 1995 HBO picture THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN, while Howard cameoed in the 2002 drama HART’S WAR.  Now they get to rattle the saber again for the celebrated African-American aerial acrobats, with George Lucas footing the bill.  

But while the profiles of Gooding and Howard topline posters for RED TAILS, their roles (however superior in rank) are subservient to the tempestuous, conflicted—and crazy-talented—younger pilots in their charge.  Howard’s Col. Bullard spends the entire first act in Washington, trying to drum up support for his near-disenfranchised (figuratively and literally) unit, whose recruits refer to the squeaky-voiced actor as “The Old Man.”  Gooding (who in real life is 42-year old Howard’s senior by four years) plays Bullard’s pipe-chomping right hand man, Maj. Stance, a proud taskmaster who urges his boys to stay mission-focused rather than dwell on the inequities befalling their segregated squadron in Italy. 
The narrative winds around a close-knit fraternity of flyboys:  Martin “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) is the clean-cut son of a judge trying to live up to everyone’s high expectations.  Joe “Lighting” Little (David Oyelowo, James Franco’s boss in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES) is the group’s resident hotshot, a gifted but occasionally reckless recruit who falls madly for a Sicilian girl living near their base.  “Smokey” is a laid-back mush-mouth who spends his leisure time playing Robert Johnson songs (“They’re Red Hot”) on a battered acoustic guitar.  “Deacon” is a spiritually-minded do-gooder who never takes to the skies without consulting a prayer card depicting “Black Jesus.”  A fifth pilot, “Ray Gun,” (Tristan Wilds) is the young blood who’d rather die than be grounded, an overeager rookie whose archetype is practically requisite for all war films—and who just might have his death wish granted.

A love-hate brotherhood unfolds between Easy and Lightning, whose propensities to push each other’s buttons are matched only by their skills in the cockpit.  Pressured to succeed as group leader, Easy numbs his nerves with alcohol, which compromises his decision-making on sorties.  Meanwhile, impetuous Lightning often breaks formation, leaving his buddies unprotected so he can shoot up stray German Messerschmitt Bf-109s and straggler ground transports just to stick it to Der Fuhrer.  When the two men agree to better themselves—with Easy giving up booze and Lighting working on his impulse control—you just know one of them won’t survive, and that the one who does will find small solace in his own personal redemption.

The airmen are enthused when General Luntz (Gerald McRaney) pulls some strings to give the 332nd a job opportunity that for once isn’t of the hand-me-down variety.  Instead of having to fold, the outfit is ordered to provide air support for a massive beach landing, where they waste no time machine-gunning Balkenkreuz-bedazzled biplanes out of the sky.  The resulting news reports and highlight reels win the attention of top brass, who finally acquiesce to Bullard’s demand for new planes and priority assignments.  Their stellar performance also frustrates the film’s token bad guy—the scarred, blonde “Pretty Boy.”  An effective amalgam of Manfred “Red Baron” von Richtofen and evil Anakin Skywalker, this blue-eyed ace gives the enemy a face (albeit scarred), shaking his fist at the departing Tuskegee titans after they reduce his base to rubble. 

Swapping rickety P-47 Thunderbolts for P-51 Mustangs, the airmen paint their tail assemblies in bright swathes of crimson and go “wheels up” with renewed vigor.  They quickly earn a reputation for restraint; their refusal to abandon the bomber “heavies” they escort wins the admiration of the white enlistees who previously scoffed at the notion of “coloreds” at the throttle, and who were accustomed to glory-seeking white pilots abandoning their guard to chase “Gerries” and up their kill counts.  But the Luftwaffe also gets an equipment upgrade, with sleek, jet-powered Me 262 replacing the 262s and taking the biplane battles of the third act into IRON EAGLE / TOP GUN territory.

The dogfights are spectacular, even if subpar digital effects occasionally threaten to shatter the illusion of crowded skies over Europe.  Dozens of planes litter the screen at the same time, and one marvels how these pilots could maneuver (much less track targets or dodge pursuers) at such velocities without crashing into one another.  Lucas, an aerial combat film aficionado, previously applied this sort of busy, high-altitude high jinx to the climactic X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter duels in STARS WARS and RETURN OF THE JEDI.  Fortunately, the pilots in RED TAILS are written well enough to at least resemble actual human beings, who—all courage aside—were probably terrified in the midst of action.  These guys sweat, breathe heavy, comment grimly on the blood pooling at their feet, and frantically radio for assistance when they can’t shake enemy bogies.  If only this realism translated to the pilots’ interactions on the ground, where the men devolve into cookie-cutter doppelgangers of similarly nicknamed, loosely-scripted soldiers we’ve seen in other combat pictures, and whose dialogue is either rote or (in Howard’s case) sloganeering.  And when one of the pilots is shot down and escorted to a German stalag, his prison bunker so closely resembles the one from HOGAN’S HEROES that I expected to find Bob Crane and Richard Dawson inside playing cards.

Likewise, the music is everything you’d expect from a WWII actioner, from frequent use of military snare drums to the woefully predictable inclusion of the Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”  Director Anthony Hemingway (television’s CSI: NY, The Wire) strikes a brisk pace and takes cinematic advantage of Sicilian topography, but his cuts are abrupt, with some sequences coming and going without establishing their significance.  Personally, I’d have enjoyed use of decidedly anachronistic (but indisputably kick-ass) rock songs like Iron Maiden’s “Tail Gunner” and “Aces High” during the dogfights.  And how funny would it have been to have Alec Guinness’ disembodied voice instructing a pilot to “Use the Force?" 

RED TAILS is a competent war thriller, even if it fails to live up to the dramatic promise of a biopic about black pilots fighting Axis Powers and a bigoted U.S. bureaucracy to carve a niche for themselves in the history books.  It’s a big-hearted war film about the adventures of an initially-discounted squadron of heroes who just happened to be black.  But it would have been inestimably more powerful had it focused more on the struggles the 322nd endured because they were black.  The pervasiveness of the era’s Jim Crow laws are only addressed on the surface; the U.S. Air Force simply buys into the ignorant tradition of viewing African-Americans as “mentally inferior,” and thus incapable of operating complex machinery with any amount of skill.  One or two guys lose their temper when the N-word is leveled, but otherwise the racism is countered with bland “Give us a chance and we’ll show ‘em” bravado.  Lucas’s message might've resonated more had the script (written by UNDERCOVER BROTHER's John Ridley and BOONDOCKS cartoonist Aaron McGruder) addressed the emotional toll of being constantly overlooked and undervalued while being subjected to the same risks as white servicemen; this patent unfairness is only scratched on the surface here, like flak glancing off fuselage.  Still, credit the STAR WARS creator for putting his beard and his big bucks behind so worthy a project; the world may yet forgive him for Jar-Jar Binks.  Hopefully a few teens will walk into RED TAILS expecting a generic shoot-‘em-up and walk out more aware of a special group of people who accomplished amazing things at a pivotal point in our nation’s history.  The Force is always strong with folks like that.  2 ½ stars out of 4.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review Pete. A lot more balanced than Capone, who called it the worst film of 2011.

    I can tell there is a lot of compentant work in there, and cool plane battles are always nice.

    I'm sure I will give this a chance on DVD.


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