Red Tails (**½)

‘Red Tails’ is one half of a decently good film. When the historical action flick is in the air chronicling dogfights, things are A-ok. However, when it is on the ground and dealing with its actual characters, things take a distinct turn for the worse. The good half isn’t quite good enough to ultimately get a recommendation from me, but for a January release, this isn’t a terrible time at the movies. It’s just full of cliches and nothing we haven’t seen before. The script is subpar, which isn’t necessarily a death sentence for a film of this ilk, but in this instance it pretty much is. If ever a cliched story had elements of originality to be mined, this story of the Tuskegee Airmen is it, but the writers seem determined to stick to “been there, seen that” war cliches that torpedo the direction of Anthony Hemingway. This was a passion project for George Lucas for almost 2 decades now, and the final product has much more in common with ‘The Phantom Menace’ than ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. It’s hardly a terrible movie, and its action is all but worth the price of admission. The thing is, you can’t just have a movie of dogfights, and the film suffers because of this. The story of African-American pilots looking for respect is a worthy one to tell, but it’s simply not told in an effective enough manner.

The film chronicles the 332nd Fighter Group and their breaking of the color barrier when it comes to fighter pilots during World War II. Originally just used for simple missions and those without any glory attached, the pilots (including Nate Parker’s Marty “Easy” Julian, David Oyelowo’s Joe “Lightning” Little, Elijah Kelley’s Samuel “Joker” George, and Tristan Wilds’ Ray “Junior” Gannon) just want to prove their worth. When just such an opportunity arises, they’re able to impress and are subsequently given more missions to undertake. Along the way, they of course face plenty of racism and segregation during the time. On their side they have Cuba Gooding Jr. as Major Emmanuelle Stance and Terrence Howard as their commanding officer Colonel A. J. Bullard. In the end, lives will be lost, glory will be attained, and the Germans will be fought back. If it sounds like something kind of unoriginal, well…it’s because it’s exactly that.

The actors are not given much to do (or good lines to read, for that matter…I’ll get to that issue in a bit though), but you can’t fault their skills. None of them are noteworthy, but they’re giving it their all. Don’t be fooled by their top billing though, as Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. are supporting players, not the stars of the movie. I did happen to find Howard and Gooding Jr. the most effective in the flick, though their roles are obviously on the smaller side and consist of trying to be inspirational with lines that aren’t worthy of their skills. Nate Parker has the biggest role, and again, the script lets him down, but he does a fine job overall. Elijah Kelley turns in something far different from ‘Hairspray’, and both David Oyelowo and Tristan Wilds hold their own. The rest of the cast includes a wasted Bryan Cranston, Gerald McRaney, and even Method Man. Trust me, the acting isn’t bad, but it’s not why you’d be seeing this film.

Pretty much the sole reason to take in ‘Red Tails’ is the aforementioned aerial sequences. Director Anthony Hemingway (along with whatever contribution George Lucas wound up adding) stages them with some skill, and you’re sucked in, even if the skies appear a bit overcrowded with CGI planes at times. The direction is hardly the issue here, and I’d actually like to see what Hemingway does next. No, the film is shot down by its writing. The script, by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder (based on the book by John B. Holway), is pretty terrible. The characters more or less just speak plot exposition, their stories are far from original (one is a drunk, one wants to be taken seriously, etc), and nothing feels organic to the story, even the inspirational speeches. Ridley is usually more reliable than this, but the screenplay is an absolute mess and keeps the film from having any chance at really taking off.

Ultimately, ‘Red Tails’ is a serviceable action flick with some subpar drama weighing it down. We’ll never quite know whether George Lucas helped or hurt things with his supposed expanded involvement, but the one thing I’m certain of is that Lucas likely envisioned something better than this when he first got the itch to make the film. Like I previously said, the movie isn’t awful, but it only entertains during the time in the air. On the ground, things are a real mess. Judge for yourself if half of a 2 hour plus film is enough to warrant a viewing on your end. I’m not recommending it at all, but I’m not exactly scaring you off either. You won’t really suffer either way…

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