Red Tails Review
By Bret Dorman
If I was a normal movie goer, just looking to sit back and have a good time, I could come out of Red Tails completely numbed and feel indifferent about it. But because I have to (well… I don’t “have to”) write a review, the more I thought about what the movie did wrong the more furious I became.
The worst part is this movie isn’t even infuriating on the hopelessly stereotypical and blandly underdog level, but just basic plot points and character arcs. I was afraid I was going into an overly preachy movie about overcoming racism that still portrayed its characters as one-dimensional cliches and the movie does do that, but its never all too preachy about it. It just… is.
Story: Easy (Nate Parker) is the leader of the Tuskegee Airmen. Lightning is the hot head rebel of the group who gets into trouble and loves the ladies. Their higher ups are Major Emanuel Stance and Col. A.J. Bullard (Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Terrence Howard). White people don’t like them but they are really good at flying planes and shooting things. Also, Jar-Jar Binks may or may not make an appearance…
Let’s get the race stuff out of the way first. The characters in this movie are very one dimensional. But I don’t think they are racist caricatures, just poorly drawn characters. Most of them are awkwardly affable. It seems either the actors aren’t comfortable in front of the camera or aren’t comfortable with the material/direction given to them. The biggest disappointments though are the two ‘heavy hitters’ of the movie. Cuba Gooding Jr. is laughably ridiculous gnawing on his pipe the entire movie and treating the film as if he were reading the script and acting it out to a bunch of elementary school kids. Terrence Howard has very few moments, some of which are fine, but one of his bigger ones (that’s in the trailer) is a speech that sounds stilted and drained. “We. Will. Not. Go. A. Way.” Right…
As far as the race goes plot-wise it’s your standard underdog story. The black pilots are undermined, underestimated, given hand-me-downs, and disliked all around. But once they prove themselves in battle the white pilots lighten up and shake their hands and ask for their help. Happy times! I’m not offended by the laziness or predictability of the overall theme, but it’s the individual character moments that really get me.
In order to explain some of these, I’ll kind of go into spoilers or more detailed details. Nothing too big like who lives and who dies (hint: not every single pilot makes it to the very end).
Here’s are the big problems:
Were are told that Easy is an alcoholic, but this is more like a flashcard function of his character than any real trait. We are lead to believe that it was his drinking that made it so he couldn’t guide a fellow pilot’s plane into a safe landing even though the plane was on fire. We are lead to believe it was his drinking that caused him to let a pilot who maybe shouldn’t have been flying to fly even though that pilot gives us a ‘this is the only thing I know’ speech and begs Easy to let him fly. Easy even makes a promise to not drink anymore and right before the biggest flight/battle of the movie he takes a swig of alcohol and it is NEVER brought up again. If he is such a debilitating alcoholic how is he able to fly so well so consistently? It seems Lucas and Spielberg have very strange, cartoon-ish ideas of what it means to be an alcoholic. It works fine in The Adventures of Tintin (even though I wasn’t particularly a fan) because it IS a cartoon. But here it is severely out of place and a cheap cliche under-thought gimmick with absolutely no effort put into its justification.
At the very beginning the group is on a boring run when they spot a German train. They decide to take the train out. Standard procedure would dictate they take the train from the front, since the giant fucking gun on the back that is designed to shoot down planes is on the back of the train. The reckless approach would be to take the train from the back. At the moment, they are closer to the back of the train, which is almost at a tunnel and if it goes in they won’t be able to get to it. So… the responsible pilots take one approach and Lightning, the reckless one, takes the other. Can you guess which approaches they took?
WRONG! (channeling my inner-Kevin-Spacey-Lex-Luther there). The responsible group sacrifices going around and dive right into the fire of the giant fucking gun and come out completely unscathed. The reckless pilot takes the responsible approach of going around and firing at it head on, but in the end takes a couple of harmless bullets. When they get back they yell at him for being oh so reckless. This makes… NO SENSE. I get that you need a rebel of the group, one who gets the job done in unconventional ways but to have the reckless pilot take the responsible approach and ‘be punished’ for it is absolutely non-sense-icle for a movie that so desperately wants to be averagely formulaic.
Also, the Lightning character falls in love at first fly-by. They are flying past some Italian village and he sees a beautiful woman. He decides he must meet this woman. It is alluded to that he is a ‘one night stand’ kinda guy and this woman will (hopefully?) just be another notch on his belt. When he meets her, he indeed falls head over heels in love and they go on a date or two. Then Lightning admits to his friends that he is in LOVE, to which all his friends proceed to make fun of him in the typical bachelor manner and he rolls with the punches but insists he’s changed his ways. That’s fine. So far, so good (well, average). But then, in the next scene when they are out on a date, she confesses her love to him and he backs down and gets nervous. The audience giggles at a man’s inability to commit which is a normal joke for normal people. But it completely undermines the character arc (something Lucas is used to doing lately insisting Greedo shot first and Han shot second) of a ladies man who is ready to settle down. It’s just a cheap laugh.
Its touches like these that show that even when trying to just create an average movie, the movie can’t quite succeed. But I know what you’re thinking, “This isn’t an OSCAR caliber just sit back and enjoy the plane fights!” To which I say “No! I. Will. Not. Enjoy. The. Plane. Fight.” Lucas and company obviously take CGI very very very seriously and there was a lot of effort put into making the planes themselves look real but no real effort into making them exciting. A couple of wide shots with a bunch of stuff happening then a couple of one on one close calls/kills create a majority of the action. The focus is on the realism of the computer generated effects and not in how to actually portray the action in an interesting way.
In Conclusion, I almost forgot I saw Red Tails until weeks later I revisited my notes and realized I hadn’t written a review for it yet. I went in knowing I wasn’t going to like this movie and I tried giving it the benefit of the doubt. But this movie’s aim is to be as watered down and easily digestible as possible. Thematically I can swallow it. But to make such poor (and in my opinion, wrong) specific decisions character-wise is mostly confusing. It’s as if they had the right formula, but plugged the wrong numbers into the wrong variables.
Final Grade: D