The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Red Tails

Red Tails is a film with noble intentions and a flawed execution. A longtime pet project of George Lucas (who serves as executive producer), the movie pays tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen, the crew of African-American pilots who faced racial segregation in World War II before going on to become heroes. It opens with a bang, as some of the pilots find a rare bit of action, taking out a German train that is armed with weapons. Those first fifteen minutes indicate how thrilling the aerial sequences will be. Once the planes land, the stage is set for a formulaic plot that leaves few war movie cliches unturned.

The main characters are Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), the hard-drinking flight leader, and Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo) , the squad's resident rebel. Joe is the one who takes all the risks and pushes to shoot down enemies, even when orders say not to. Marty tries to keep him in line, usually unsuccessfully. Terrence Howard portrays Colonel A.J. Bullard, who fights the military brass to give his men a chance to do something substantive. His wish is granted when the Airmen are assigned to protect American bombers during a mission. Marty, Joe, and the others are not entirely happy about the “escort” task, but their leader, Major Stance (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), gives them a motivating pep talk. After successfully doing their job, the military finds some new-found respect for their skills, asking them to take on another assignment. With the tails of their planes painted red to distinguish them, they take flight to serve their country.

The Tuskegee Airmen were exceptionally skilled pilots who had an amazing track record of success in the missions to which they were assigned. Red Tails clearly has a lot of admiration for them. The tone of the film is very respectful, with all of them portrayed as true patriots. Although a few historical details are fudged, it's only in an attempt to celebrate the accomplishments of the Airmen and to recognize their necessary contributions.

The aerial scenes also do this. Modern special effects have allowed Lucas and director Anthony Hemingway (“CSI: NY”) to create the most amazing flight scenes I've ever witnessed. They're not only fast-paced and thrilling, but they also make you feel what it must have been like to fly a fighter plane. There are shots that start in the cockpit, then zoom onto something on the ground; others do the exact opposite. Shots like these go a long way toward emphasizing the multi-level nature of aerial combat. The mid-air fights are breathtaking too, providing a sense of movement that is dizzying. It makes you wonder how people could keep their composure in a plane that's constantly turning, swooping, and diving, much less hit a target that's doing the exact same thing.

As fantastic as all that stuff is, Red Tails falters narratively. Subplots repeatedly appear out of nowhere and/or are abruptly dropped. (When one character is captured by the Germans, his escape attempt is cut short right when it starts to get interesting.) At times, it feels like big chunks of the story have hit the cutting room floor. An additional problem is that the racism faced by the Tuskegee Airmen is generically presented. Most of the white characters sneer at them or make cutting comments simply because they're black. The movie makes no attempt to portray the racism at anything other than a surface level. There are also cliched plot strands involving a romance (Joe falls for an Italian woman), alcoholism, group rivalries, etc. War movies often use a very particular cliché – almost a telegraph as to which character will become dead meat. Red Tails hauls this one out too. For a film that wants to celebrate American heroes, it's kind of shocking how lazy and formulaic the screenplay is.

And one more thing: Why does Terrence Howard feel compelled to deliver every single line of dialogue in a weird, messianic voice?

Red Tails is the kind of picture that leaves me on the fence. It's great to look at and has a bunch of really cool action sequences. Plus, it rightly pays tribute to American heroes. On the other hand, it's not a particularly well-made film on a storytelling level. The Tuskegee Airmen deserve better than to have their fascinating history awkwardly squeezed into a conventional war-movie plot. In the end, Red Tails is simply not as triumphant as it should have been. It gets some things right, but the stuff it gets wrong is difficult to get past.

( 1/2 out of four)

Red Tails is rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence. The running time is 2 hours and 5 minutes.

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