Friday, May 25, 2012

DVD Review: Red Tails

Red Tails ** ½ Directed by: Anthony Hemingway.
Written by: John Ridley and Aaron McGruder based on the book by John B. Holway.
Starring: Terrence Howard (Colonel A.J. Bullard), Nate Parker (Marty 'Easy' Julian), Tristan Wilds (Ray 'Junior' Gannon), Elijah Kelley (Samuel 'Joker' George), Leslie Odom Jr. (Declan 'Winky' Hall), Kevin Phillips (Leon 'Neon' Edwards), Method Man (Sticks), Lee Tergesen (Colonel Jack Tomilson), Daniela Ruah (Sofia), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Major Emanuelle Stance), David Oyelowo (Joe 'Lightning' Little), Ne-Yo (Andrew 'Smoky' Salem), Marcus T. Paulk (David 'Deke' Watkins), Michael B. Jordan (Maurice Wilson), Andre Royo (Antwan 'Coffee' Coleman), Bryan Cranston (Colonel William Mortamus), Gerald McRaney (Lieutenant General Luntz).

The Tuskegee Airmen have deserved a big budget tribute that Red Tails aspires to be since the end of WWII. They were an all-black air unit of pilots who were heroes – took on all the jobs that no one else wanted, and performed them better than anyone else. They faced racism both at home and abroad – even the military brass didn’t believe in them, and set them up for failure. George Lucas has apparently been developing this movie for more than 20 years, and was turned down by every studio he went to, who didn’t want to spend all the money on an all-black cast in a war movie. Finally, the movie makes it way to the big screen – in what Lucas calls the middle movie of a planned trilogy. And when the movie is in the air, it is an exciting, brilliantly choreographed aerial action movie, helmed by Anthony Hemingway. The problem is when the movie is one the ground.
Red Tails opens with the airmen already over in Italy. They are put on the least glamorous jobs – hundreds of miles from the frontline, basically running patrols and taking out single targets and essentially doing boring work. They have old, beat up planes, and get no respect. The military brass does not want to give them any high profile jobs – it makes it much easier to insult their lack of aerial takedowns when they never come close to any enemy aircraft. Eventually though, they will get their chance – and make it undeniable how skilled they are.

You could use a checklist in running down the assembled pilots that make up this unit. The leader with some personal demons (in this case, alcoholism), the hot shot who doesn’t follow orders, but is too good to take out of the air, the young kid trying to prove himself, the joker (whose nickname is conveniently Joker) and so on. Their commanding officers include the biggest stars – Cuba Gooding Jr., who gives them their orders while chomping on a pipe, and Terrence Howard, who fights the military brass to give the airmen better jobs. There is even a romance between one of the pilots an Italian girl that as clichéd as it is, is also undeniably sweet.

The highlight of the movie is the aerial fight sequences. George Lucas have director Anthony Hemingway the keys to the CGI kingdom for these sequences, and the result is some of the best, aerial fight sequences I have ever seen in a movie. They are fast paced and exciting, but they never fall into the trap of going over the top, or being so rapidly edited that you do not know what is going on. When he was on The Daily Show, Lucas mentioned that this is the closest you’ll ever get to Episode VII, and he meant in the aerial fight sequences that rival those in the Star Wars movies.
But the scenes are the ground are too clichéd to be effective – the characters are too cookie cutter for you to truly care about them, or connect with them on a persona level. Even the racism they face seems benign in comparison to how it probably really was – and seems to be solved far more easily. I have a feeling that the first and third movies in this apparent trilogy are meant to delve into those issues a little deeper – and that Lucas decided to make the action packed middle segment first because it was the easier sell. But that means the movie lacks context. For all the problems in Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna, which was also a black military unit in Italy in WWII, it had something that is lacking in Red Tails – anger and passion. For Red Tails to be a good movie, it needed more of both.

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