George Lucas has been pretty outspoken about how difficult his new film, "Red Tails," was to get made – about how he had to finance it himself, and how when he showed it to studio heads they weren't much interested. And he's framed these stories around race, saying that the reason "Red Tails" was summarily rejected was because it featured an almost all-black cast, in Lucas' mind a very real reminder of Hollywood's stodgy cinematic racism. But watching "Red Tails," it's clear that the reason nobody wanted anything to do with the movie isn't because it was too black, but rather because it was too fucking awful.
Watching the film, you realize that you're in for a bumpy ride during the opening sequence, when a feeling of dread washes over you, just like when the aliens started talking with offensive Asian accents at the beginning of "Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace." In the case of "Red Tails," we're thrown into a frenzied World War II air battle, with airplanes zooming this way and that. It's reasonably exciting, even though you can't really tell who is fighting who (the German with the cartoonish scar down the side of his face, though, is definitely a bad guy), but for some goddamn reason Lucas felt the need for the opening credits to play over this scene, and not in some subtle, artistically interesting way. No, he has chosen the biggest, blockiest, most screen-consuming font, so that instead of getting caught up in the action, we were thinking "Oh, Ben Burtt, sound designer for the 'Star Wars' movies, helped edit this, hmmm." Then we got to thinking about Ewoks and then suddenly the scene was over.
The next scene actually establishes some things, as we watch a bunch of black pilots, known historically (but never in the movie) as the Tuskegee Airmen. The stakes are immediately identified and their place in the militaristic hierarchy cemented – they were given hand-me-down planes, and asked to do the housecleaning missions that nobody else wanted. In this scene we see them taking out some trucks before firing on a train loaded with ammunition. The central relationships start to take stage too, chiefly the relationship with the more by-the-books Easy (Nate Parker) and his second-in-command, the showier Lightning (David Oyelowo). The other pilots aren't blessed with even cursory characterization, so characters like Joker (Elijah Kelley), Smoky (Ne-Yo), Junior (Tristan Wilds), and Deke (Marcus T. Paulk) are only identified as "the one with the wad of tobacco in his mouth" or "the one who prays for Black Jesus." Honestly, they kind of blur together, both from a character standpoint and, since most of the time we see them with an abundance of aviation gear concealing their faces, from a visual standpoint too.
Of course the airmen have a pair of higher-ups fighting for their boys. On the base, which is stationed in Italy, is Major Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr). Left with little else to do, Gooding Jr. has decided to focus his performance on animatedly chomping on his pipe, in ways that are hilarious and distracting. If there was a drinking game based around him putting that pipe in his mouth in the showiest way possible, you would probably have passed out before the end of the second act. In the Pentagon, there's Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard, looking like he really regrets making waves with the Marvel folks). Both men advocate for more responsibility for the airmen, and they get it, first assisting bombers during D-Day and then in further aerial missions.
The D-Day sequence is sort of interesting because it represents what the movie could have been – as the big boats ram up onto the beach, we see our heroes flying overhead. Had "Red Tails" succeeded, it could have been a "Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead" type movie, wherein the overlooked valor of precious few represent an untold alternate take on a war that has been exhaustively dramatized. But instead, "Red Tails" drowns in lengthy (to the point of fatigue) air combat sequences, cornball dialogue and pat sentiment. It could have been special, instead it's a bore.
"Red Tails" was directed by Anthony Hemingway, a veteran of HBO series like "The Wire" and "Treme," and he knows reasonably well where to put the camera and how to stage the action, but the movie often feels cheap and TV-like. The visuals are awash in drab colors, even when we detour to the Italian town that neighbors the base, and dramatic character arcs are wrapped up quickly and in tidy packages (a fighter suffers from alcoholism, another falls in love with a local Italian woman so busty you wonder how none of the wingmen made a joke about the "bombs" she is carrying). Lucas' penchant for expositional dialogue has never been stronger. After our flyers' initial run with the big boys, one of the white bomber pilots actually says, "I hope we see those Red Tails again." Yes, seriously. You could hear audible groans in the audience.
Clearly Lucas thought this was going to be the one shot he got at telling this story since, as the movie goes along, he starts piling additional historical miscellanea onto the already overburdened framework, including, and we really wish we could be making this up, one of the pilots becoming a prisoner of Stalag 18 and, much like William Holden, escaping, an unnecessary subplot that takes up a valuable 20 minutes of the running time, right when things should be ramping up towards a thrilling and emotionally satisfying climax. But the captured prisoner learns about the color-blindness of brotherhood, so that's good.
Lucas has gone on and on about how "Red Tails" is indistinguishable from similar movies that were actually produced in the 1940s, but that's pretty much horseshit too. The movie is filled with gratingly rah-rah patriotism and stock characters, but what separates it from a similar genre throwback like, say, "The Artist," is a purity of intent. Since there's nothing, in Lucas' eyes, that can't benefit from a new layer of digital paint, the action sequences feel less like classic war movies and more like some next-gen videogame, and the effect is off-putting. You can't get drawn into the action because you can barely make out what's going on. And the platitudes and speeches are refreshingly free of cynicism but they clash violently not only with cinema in 2012 but also in what we know of the war. It's hard to pump your fist with quite so much glee when the airmen take out an airbase full of Germans, knowing that many of them weren't in tune, ideologically, with the Nazis, but were, just like our heroes, men in uniform following orders. For a movie with core themes about universality and brotherhood, it's enough to make you feel alienated.
As the climax, which sees our fighters up against new Nazi jets ("reverse-engineered from downed UFO technology," you can picture Lucas snickering), zooms ahead, you all but check out emotionally. One of our main pilots dies, which is meant to be sad, but it's amazing that no one had died in the movie before this point, so instead of thinking "Awww" you think "Well, about time, this was a war after all." The movie ends with a whimper, not exactly a triumph, on the cusp of the first bombing of Berlin, which feels more like a pause than a conclusion. Maybe audiences will respond to the movie's hokey old timey feel (you half expected an ad for war bonds to appear before the closing credits) and Lucas will be able to do further stories about these unheralded heroes. But we sure hope not. [D]