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By Richard von Busack
The heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen, African-Americans who fought and died for a nation that treated them as second-class citizens, will never be forgot. The movie Red Tails, however…forget about it. The surviving airmen probably saw worse war movies back when they were young, so likely they can stand it. Once upon a time, Red Tails’ executive producer George Lucas stitched in excerpts of WWII movie dogfight footage to let the studio know what he had in mind for the battle sequences in Star Wars, since the animation of starships and fighters wasn’t completed yet. Red Tails seems to have woven all those snippets together.
Red Tails follows the basis of the story of the 332nd Fighter Group, stationed in Italy but under threat of closure by racist officers at the Pentagon. (One of the officers is Bryan Cranston, who gets very little to do.) The old man in charge of the 332nds is Col. Bullard (Terrence Howard) who urges the top brass to give his men a chance to perform in combat. Bullard’s assistant Major Stance (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) the thoughtful, pipe-smoking, kindly type.
Among the men, there’s the typical Top Gun situation: everyone has their one well-defined problem. Hot-shot Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo) never wants to straighten up and fly right. Oyelowo was memorably sardonic in Rise of the Planet of the Apes as the head of the gen-tech firm, though it’s hard to remember that, watching him here.
The pilot derided as “Junior” (Tristan Wilds) turns up in a subplot about a German prison camp called, shamelessly, “Stalag 18”. Andre Royo and Method Man are the wacky mechanics; Ne-Yo is “Smokey” the down-home one. Though he shows almost no outward signs of drunkenness, Easy (Nate Parker), the one with the drinking problem, keeps staring at a pint of rye like Hamlet contemplating a skull.
Admittedly if the characters are only as deep as their tiny audience-friendly flaws, it’s hard to act around rubber air masks. And long-time HBO director (Treme, et al) Anthony Hemingway disinters every bad devil dogs of the air line you ever endured. “How do you like that, Mr. Hitler?” says an ace after shooting down a plane. A scar-faced German called “Pretty-Boy” attacks in a Messerschmitt 262 jet fighter shouting “Die, you foolish African!”
For romance, there’s Easy’s tender courtship with a non-anglophonic Italian girl (Daniela Ruah from CSI: Los Angeles).
The filmmakers open up of a big barrel of anachronism: a prayer session, football huddle and group cheer before flying the big mission. During a card game one airman shouts, “Right like that, boom! [i.e., “In your face!”] when he has a winning hand of cards.
Lastly comes the movie’s ten-ton point: “We are on the side of God Almighty” Major Stance assures us, and then the screen fills with wall-to-wall flag. The manipulative patriotism tries to make an audience turn a blind eye to the weary falseness of Red Tails. It’s not the Duration anymore: a film could tell the truth about the bitterness and pain of war, and explain the backgrounds of the soldiers and the depth of segregation in America, without encouraging the Axis. (For no defensible reason, there are scenes at the Pentagon; why didn’t they include the interesting historical tidbit that the Pentagon was built with segregated bathrooms?)
This pumped up late-show movie has a couple of guest moments by vintage planes. Most of the action is CGI fighters rolling in a spotless, synthetic white sky. It’s only going to look real to gamers who make allowances for the limits of digital video graphics.
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