Review: Deeply Flawed ‘Red Tails’ Takes a Swift Nosedive Into Insult and Predictability

By  · Published on January 21st, 2012

In 1995, HBO produced a film called The Tuskegee Airmen chronicling the heroic story of the first squadron of African-American fighter pilots during WWII. The HBO version stars Laurence Fishburne, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, John Lithgow, and Cuba Gooding Jr. I don’t mention this film because of its obscurity, or to thereby prove my film knowledge by pointing it out. I offer this film as favorable alternative to wasting two hours of time on the irrecoverable nosedive that is Red Tails.

I’ll say it again, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen is beyond heroic and deserves multiple competent cinematic revisits. These were men who fervently, and with their very lives, defended a country that made policy of oppressing and mistreating them. Not only that, but they also proved to be one of the most effective and successful fighter battalions of the entire war. The larger themes of honor, duty, and sacrifice so inherent and alive in their story are reduced to After School Special platitudes in the George Lucas-produced and Anthony Hemingway-directed Red Tails. Instead of genuine traits, all of the characters occupy loosely-fitting archetypes mined from the most trite of “guys on a mission” tropes. That guy is the hot-headed glory hound, that guy is the goofy one, that guy has a drinking problem, that guy is in love, that guy looks like Denzel Washington. Okay, that last one is actually specific to Red Tails but it no less proves to be that actor’s only marketable skill.

Cuba Gooding Jr. (yes, he’s in this one too), as rusty as one would expect from a barely passable actor relegated to direct-to-video cinema for the last five years, distinguishes himself by…chomping on a pipe throughout the film; distilling his character’s entire personality into an oral fixation. And then of course, there is obligatory evil German, replete with scar, whose dialogue (which mind you is subtitled and could have easily been changed after the first edit) is not only contrived, mustache-twirly villainisms, but also often times counter to reason. “Those pilots are rookies” he quips inaccurately, somehow believing himself able to deduce this by looking at their planes from a distance.

It isn’t bad enough that the lines of dialogue being delivered by nearly every actor in this film is basic Point-A-To-Point-B Screenwriting 101 nonsense, as if all the dialogue for the principal characters was culled from the throwaway, barely audible drivel usually assigned to extras, but the staggering lack of emotional resonance with which each is uttered is jaw-dropping. Some of the worst examples came from the white pilots of the bombers who would see the Tuskegee Airmen and say, as coldly and as flatly as it appears in this text, “I sure hope we get their help again.” For their part, the Airmen drop punchlines as stale and flavorless as military rations with conviction that would deeply trouble a first-year community theater director; at one point cutting to a pilot just so he could mouth-fart “damn.” But perhaps this is just my ignorance at play, I guess I didn’t realize the Tuskegee Airmen were also known as the 332nd Flying Table Reads.

And speaking of reading the script, I feel I must pose the question as to whether anyone actually did so before shooting began. There are so many logical errors at work here you’ll want to claw your eyes out. Firstly, the whole film is supposed to be about how the Tuskegee Airmen had to fight against racist bureaucracy in order to earn the right to fly in important missions as opposed to just scouting territory already long-cleared of enemy presence. And yet, once they do earn that right, there is never a sense of completion to any of their missions. There’s a ham-fisted point made in the opening about how most fighter pilots abandon their convoys, which they are tasked with protecting, to chase the glory of shooting down German fighters. So to establish themselves in their first convoy mission, the airmen of Red Tails…abandon their bombers to chase the glory of shooting down enemy bombers.

This becomes the standard for every subsequent mission, and all the while they run into previously bigoted white pilots who are now treating them like equals and thanking them for getting their bombers home safely. EVEN THOUGH THEY NEVER DID THIS ONCE! This flimsy logic is apparently not confined to the Allies. At one point, during a vital bombing campaign over Berlin, the German squad commander, Colonel Scars Von BaddenDuden, calls off his fighters stating of the bombers, “we’ll get them on the way back.” THE WAY BACK? As in, AFTER THEY’VE BOMBED BERLIN?! What sort of strategy is that? “We’ll lose the war through laziness, but they’ll sure pay for it later.”

I won’t waste time pointing out every logical fallacy, as this review would be a near line-for-line deconstruction, but one other moment really bothered me. When the general tells them to paint the tails of their new planes red, so they stand out, one of the airmen proudly exclaims, “like the Red Barron!” Yes, like the Red Barron, the GERMAN fighter pilot! No one bothers to correct him nor does it ever even register to anyone as an odd comment. Face. Palm.

The other major problem with this film, and one only augmented by the numerous problems heretofore mentioned, is its clunky pacing. Red Tails is a film that apparently took twenty-three years to produce, and seemingly just slightly longer to sit through. Every glimmer of momentum that springs through the mire is thoroughly and mercilessly stomped out by maddeningly superfluous secondary storylines. I am willing to forgive unnecessary romantic subplots in any script as there is always a faction of your audience that craves it. However, when that romance is between two people who do not speak the same language and spend nearly all of their time on screen sighing in frustration that they can’t speak to one another and looking at the floor, it seems doubly primed for the cutting room floor. Oh, and take a wild guess what happens to lover boy when he puts a picture of his lost-in-translation girlfriend in his cockpit. Incoming cliches at twelve o’clock high! And then there’s the airmen who gets shot down, captured, and helps a group of undeveloped, barely introduced, POW characters escape. This again would have been forgivable if the end of this story wasn’t a “next week on Red Tails” fade out and a neck-breaking cut to the next seen. We’re, of course, later regaled with the story of what happened to him through exposition, but only so it can set up a hackneyed, wholly unearned moment of forced heroism at the end.

So all in all, no ,I didn’t care much for Red Tails. The story of the Tuskegee Airmen deserves more than the incendiary lip service paid here. Ultimately, even the important through-line subplot of America working through its racist past was touched upon just enough to free Anthony Hemingway, or much more likely Lucas, of accusations of completely ignoring it while simultaneously glossing over it with the broadest possible strokes to ensure that no one is offended. Yes, because that is how you tell a story of the triumph of great men over adversity…water down the adversity. Also, if ever a George Lucas project needed John Williams, it was Red Tails. If the score had featured Williams’ typically rousing themes, perhaps the aerial battles would not have induced so many yawns. Hell, I would have even taken the android ejaculate that is the dubstep in the trailer over the somatic tones of the ABC movie-of-the-week soundtrack.

The Upside: There are WWII planes involved.

The Dowside: Pretty much everything else.

On the Side: Lucas directed all the reshoots of Red Tails when Hemingway was busy with the HBO series Treme. I’m not saying this explains all of Red Tails’ problems, but it explains a lot of Red Tails’ problems.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.