Review: Red Tails / Cert: TBC/ Directed by: Anthony Hemingway / Screenplay by: John Ridley, Aaron McGruder / Starring: Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr, Terrence Howard, Tristan Wilds / Release date: June 6th
Putting the 'dog' in dog-fighting, George Lucas's purported swan song shows plenty of promise in its early stages but ultimately takes a nosedive. Based on the real-life exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of black World War II fighter pilots who overcame racial prejudice to kick seven bells out of the Luftwaffe, Red Tails favours whiz bang heroics over historical grit.
Conceived by Lucas to be an inspirational yarn for young black men and a tribute to the bravery of the airmen themselves, the filmmaker's intentions are undoubtedly noble. Unfortunately, aside from some spirited performances and strong digital effects, the quality of the finished product is patchy at best. Although the Star Wars mogul executive produces rather than directs, leaving TV veteran Hemingway (The Wire, True Blood) to call the shots, Red Tails, for better or worse, feels very much like a Lucas film.
Stationed in Italy in 1944, the Tuskegee Airmen are considered inferior by the military top brass, represented here by Bryan Cranston's (Breaking Bad) racist officer. With the men longing for a real mission that will let them show their worth, their colonel, AJ Bullard (Howard), fights to get them a real assignment, while the stalwart Major Stance (Gooding Jr) does his best to keep the pilots' morale up and their skills sharp.
This lack of combat, however, is driving hot shot pilot Joe 'Lightning' Little (Oyelowo) to take bigger and bigger risks, bringing him into conflict with his best friend, and captain, Marty 'Easy' Julian (Parker). Finally presented with a worthy mission, Easy leads his men to a stunning victory over the Nazis, and the Tuskegee Airmen begin to win some grudging respect.
Painting the tails of their planes a distinctive red and forging a reputation as the selfless defenders of vulnerable bomber squadrons, the men are soon getting the recognition they deserve. As Easy's drinking and Lightning's recklessness put the other Red Tails in jeopardy, however, the men must battle both the Nazis and their own demons to survive.
Star Wars fans will be well-aware that George Lucas based his space battles on footage from old WWII movie dogfights and Red Tails allows him to further demonstrate his love of blending kinetic action and breakneck editing to create memorable mid-air melees. What's more, apart from a couple of dodgy background shots, the CGI is top notch and in many sequences only experts will be able to tell the digital planes from the real thing.
Lucas has long been dogged with accusations that his films suffer from corny dialogue and Red Tails has plenty, although the main players do a fantastic job of giving their lines some spark. Tristan Wilds (The Wire) as the naive Raygun, rapper Ne-Yo as the deadpan Smoky, and Andre Royo (another Wire alumnus) as cranky mechanic Coffee form a fun ensemble cast who imbue the thin material with humour, vigour and charm.
Old hands Howard and Gooding Jr also manage to do a lot with a little, squeezing real emotional weight out of lines that would be lacklustre in lesser actors' hands. Parker and Oyelowo are also endearing as the flawed heroes, but again it's the material that lets them down. Easy's alcohol problem is woefully underdeveloped, as is Lightning's romance with a local Italian girl; the latter being so lifeless and perfunctory it brings to mind the Anakin/Padme love affair from the Star Wars prequels. The racial prejudice that the Tuskegee Airmen face is also dealt with in the broadest of strokes, and while this might be in keeping with the bright and breezy tone of an unabashed adventure yarn, it's a missed opportunity to bolster the flimsy plot with some resonant drama.
Just as the Tuskegee Airmen fought to keep their planes in the air, it seems that the cast of Red Tails are fighting to do the same for Lucas's film, and they almost succeed. It's a series of mishandled elements that ultimately shoot it out of the sky, however, from the ill-fitting score, to the strange decision to slap obtrusive opening credits over a stunning opening sequence, to a POW plot strand that is executed with hum-drum indifference.
Perhaps most jarring of all is the voice work of the bomber pilots who comment on the exploits of the Red Tails in a grating monotone that makes Hayden Christensen sound like Laurence Olivier. Add to this a script that runs out of steam half-way before barrelling towards an abrupt and very unsatisfying ending and you have an adventure film that takes off really well before coming in for a nasty crash landing.
Expected rating: 8 out of 10