I think George Lucas deserves some credit where it’s due, and say what you will about the prequels, the opening to Revenge of the Sith, with the dogfight over the planet was pretty awe-inspiring. So when the trailer for Red Tails came out, I was excited to see a Lucasfilm production that focused mainly on one of the strengths he still had.
And I’m pleased to say that he’s still got it. The dogfights in Red Tails look good, give a good sense of whose plane is whose (with the exception of the opening battle), further the plot, and build on each other. You can see the Lucas touch of following one plane during its flight then latching on to another.
In one sequence, a group (squadron?) take down a train, with one pilot taking it head on. Another shows how the under-equipped planes of the heroes are able to fight with lightning-fast German jets.
The fights are genuinely compelling—and I’d be remiss to not mention director Anthony Hemingway for shooting them—as they’re not simply a bunch of planes shooting at each other. Air, land, and water provide the setting for set pieces, and, though it’s a bit overt, they explain how each plane should go about attacking its target, whether it is that train or jet or air base or ship. Most importantly, they’re pretty damn entertaining.
Unfortunately, that’s about where the highlights end.
Providing the basis for the action is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American military airmen who worked as bomber escorts in WWII Europe. The movie tells us that, despite the prevalent belief at the time that blacks weren’t capable of piloting aircraft to any competent degree, the Tuskegee Airmen were known for their bravery and skill, to the point that they were specifically requested by bomber pilots as escorts.
It’s a point the film makes with all the subtlety of a white pilot early on in a mission lamenting, “Negro pilots? They can’t fly!” only to later remark after a successful run, “I hope we meet up with those Red Tails next time!”
Among the Airmen are Major Emanuel Stance, their much-put-upon commander, played by Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Terrence Howard and Bryan Cranston as Colonels A.J. Bullard and William Mortamus, their much-put-upon, uh, Colonels. All three are largely there to argue that the men are great pilots and reinforce that fact, though Gooding gets to deliver some inspirational speeches to the men in between.
There’s Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo), the hotshot flyboy who lives life on the edge and is constantly being berated for taking too many chances; Ray “Junior”/“Ray Gun” Gannon (Tristan Wilds), the new guy who carries a toy ray gun as his good luck charm, which should instantly mark him for death; the crotchety old mechanic, Antwan “Coffee” Coleman (Andre Royo); and Johnny “Insert Nickname Here” Nicks, who doesn’t appear in the film.
Honestly, there isn’t much to say. The movie is big on some nice action but lacks in character. Lightning is the most interesting and gets an American Graffiti-esque subplot where he falls in love with a Sicilian dream girl (while Ray gets kidnapped and in the next scene escapes), but these are moved along too fast and with too little development to make us really care.
Ray and another pilot who flies with a picture of “Black Jesus” (we know because he constantly reminds us) are largely defined by the trinkets they carry or the WWII archetype they fit into instead of any distinguishing character traits (even one character’s alcoholism subplot is resolved about as soon as it’s brought up), and the issues of racism that it ostensibly explores wade in shallow depths.
Much of the drama and theme is just shoved in the audience’s faces. For example, when the men venture into a GI bar, they’re tossed out for being black. Later on, after they’ve proved themselves, the men walk by the same bar and are called out by some of the patrons. It looks like a rumble is brewing, but the twist is so flagrantly obvious that I don’t need to even mention it. For that matter, I can’t recall the last film score I heard that featured a crescendo every other second.
Aside from that, I have two questions: 1) Is there only one pilot in the entire Luftwaffe? 2) Do all the planes have cameras mounted on them?