Monday, January 30, 2012

Red Tails / *½ (PG-13)

Marty ‘Easy’ Julian: Nate Parker
Joe ‘Lightning’ Little: David Oweyolo
Ray ‘Junior’ Gannon: Tristan Wilds
Andrew ‘Smokey’ Salem: Ne-Yo
David ‘Deke’ Watkins: Marcus T. Paulk
Samuel ‘Joker’ George: Elijah Kelley
Antwan ‘Coffee’ Coleman: Andre Royo
Maj. Emmanuelle Stance: Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Col. A.J. Bullard: Terrence Howard
Sofia: Daniela Ruah

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Anthony Hemingway. Written by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder. Running time: 125 min. Rated PG-13 (for some sequences of war violence).

“Red Tails” is at best an unusual World War II movie that tells the story of the all-black air squadron sometimes known as the Tuskegee Airmen. At its worst, it is a hackneyed melodrama that sees combat with antiquated romantic notions that rely on age-old archetypes and clichéd speech-driven dialogue. Executive produced by George Lucas of “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” fame, the path “Red Tails” took to the big screen has been a storied one in which Lucas has been trying to get the film made since 1988. The time it took to find financing and come to fruition did little to help its script; however, it did allow for CGI technology to become advanced enough for it to offer some of the most thrilling aerial combat scenes to find their way to celluloid.

The opening action sequence has an odd stylization to it. Director Anthony Hemingway's camera exposes flaws in the U.S. bombing strategy when the fighter pilots employed to guard the bombers were trained to chase after the German pilots and wrack up kills. This left the bombers vulnerable to further attack, and most were ripped apart by enemy fire long before they reached their objectives. Rather than spell this out to the audience, Hemingway keeps his camera trained on the bomber crews and captures the loss of life as each bomber finds its demise in the skies.  The pacing here isn’t typical of an action scene, leaving the audience uncomfortable with what they are seeing. It’s the best sequence of the film.

Despite the opening credits sequence’s superiority to the rest of the film, it can definitely be said that all of the dogfights are dynamic and visually impressive. Hemingway doesn’t succumb to the tendency of directors today to turn their action scenes into a hodgepodge of editing quick cuts that dissipates any semblance of continuity. Helped to a large degree by CGI technology and Lucas’s experience with it, the dogfights are fluid and make linear sense. Plus, those airplanes look great.

The non-action sequences are another story. As a drama, “Red Tails” is like a freshmen directing and acting workshop. Everybody, including seasoned veterans Cuba Gooding Jr. (“Jerry Maguire”) and Terrence Howard (“Hustle & Flow”), comes across as if they’re just play-acting in their back yard. Hey! Let’s pretend we’re the Tuskegee Airmen! Ironically, both Gooding and Howard have played Tuskegee Airmen before in much better movies.

The dialogue by screenwriters John Ridley (“U-Turn”) and Aaron McGruder (“The Boondocks”) is paper thin. It sounds like some sort of comic book writing aimed at nine-year-old boys. The subtitled lines uttered by the German fighter pilots are laughable. Most of the characters speak as if they’re constantly standing in front a body of troops making some sort of inspirational speech. Not just the commanding officers, every character is guilty of this behavior.

The characters themselves are ridiculous archetypes. There’s an alcoholic commander, who is a drunk only in the sense that he’s always taking a swig from a bottle. None of his actions or decisions ever seems to be affected by his disease, although his “best friend” accuses him of it. The best friend is so only in declaration; there seems little to tie these characters to each other emotionally. There’s a religious pilot, a musician pilot, a jokester, a rookie and a mechanic who’s always yelling at the pilots for scratching his planes. Does that cover all the bases?

The ace pilot, Joe (David Oweyolo, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”), somehow finds time to have a romance even though he’s “the best damn fighter pilot” the squadron has. The most unlikely meet cute comes as Joe is limping his plane home from a mission where he almost got himself killed, as usual. He sees a woman on a random rooftop waving at him. After he lands, he’s able to steal a jeep without consequence and drive right to the house that he only saw from above. Sofia (Daniela Ruah, “NCIS: Los Angeles”) doesn’t speak a word of English, Joe not a word of Italian.  Her mom insists on coming along on their first date, but they eventually ditch the old lady. Soon they’re ready for marriage, even though they’ve never actually held a conversation, not speaking each other’s languages and all.

The intention of “Red Tails” is noble, but its execution is juvenile. The Tuskegee Airmen were a real experimental squadron in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Their incredible success in World War II helped pave the way for the integration of black Americans into American society as a whole. They proved everybody wrong about the competence of blacks to do all the same tasks and jobs as white people. It’s criminal that this had to be proven, and it’s almost criminal that those men should be honored in such a rudimentary movie as this one.

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