'Red Tails' Review: Lucas' Passion Project Strafed by Dull Battle Scenes
“Red Tails” is, simply put, a disappointing movie about an incredible subject.
The film tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first all African-American flight unit in the United States military. The men and women--yes, there were female "Tuskegee Airmen"--who served in this unit were incredible individuals who overcame racism and the brutal intensity of war to become heroes during World War II. Their story and the obstacles they overcame to become legendary figures in history, however, isn’t captured well in this patriotic but ultimately unremarkable film.
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Directed by Anthony Hemingway, the story focuses on the group of young warriors eager for their chance to fight. Ambitious pilots like Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), Joe “Lightning” Litte (David Oyelowo) and Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds) compose this energetic and idealistic unit. These soldiers don't focus on the racism that has held them back. They spend their time training and dreaming about getting their chance to shine. They want an opportunity to serve their country in epic battles but are repeatedly passed over for major assignments.
Their supervisors aren't satisfied with their missions, either. Played by Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr., Colonel A.J. Bullard and Major Emanuelle Stance want their unit to have a chance to prove itself. While Stance is their overseas commanding officer, Bullard is their D.C. liaison and must continually battle against the racist sensibilities of the scowling and perpetually displeased Colonel William Mortamus ("Breaking Bad's" Bryan Cranston).
In one well-done scene, the two argue about the unit, and Bullard tells the Colonel that he respects Mortamus' uniform and rank but nothing more. That speaks volumes about the racism that these airmen encountered. They were asked to serve military leaders who often looked down on them and disrespected them. But the airmen served them knowing that they were serving their country above everything else.
Both Howard and Gooding Jr. bring gravitas to their roles and when they speak to their young underlings, it’s like watching them teaching the young actors about the craft. These actors have been here before—they both portrayed Tuskegee Airmen in earlier films—and they show that they have something to teach the young ones, both onscreen and off with their strong grasp of their roles.
What’s most unfortunate about this movie are the missions themselves, which are anti-climactic and underwhelming. Considering the fact that George Lucas—the visionary behind “Star Wars”—served as an executive producer on this project, one would expect exciting scenes of air combat. We get glimpses of that here but nothing remarkable. The battles are often too short and too easily won. The Tuskegee Airmen fought and prevailed through difficult battles, but "Red Tails" never offers the true urgency of such aerial assaults.
I only wish that the movie would have captured their heroism more eloquently. “Red Tails” is undoubtedly patriotic in its appreciation for the military--something that audiences don't often see at the cineplex--but the film never captures the imagination of viewers in the same way that other war movies have done with well-executed battle sequences and strong visual effects.
Movies like this should be thrilling for the audience, but “Tails” settles for something less. It tells a inspiring true story but never captures the magnitude of what these brave pilots accomplished.