When George Lucas first undertook the idea to represent the Tuskegee airmen in an action film, some of the lead actors weren’t even born yet. Twenty-three years after the desire bubbled forth, the finished product finally hit the screens. The end result, unfortunately, does not reflect that level of preparation.
The 332nd Fighter Group—or “Red Tails” as they came to be known due to the red tails of their P-51 Mustangs—not only deserved to fight for their country, they deserved to be represented in an honorable film not replete with, well, crap.
“Red Tails’” director, Anthony Hemingway, however, decided not to go that route. Neither did the story writer, screenwriters, editors, sound effects editors, film score composer et al.
The story follows a single squadron in the 332nd made up of the medium-drinking, self-doubting squad leader, the arrogant know-it-all, the inexperienced kid, the bigmouth, and the quiet religious guy who, in most WWII films, ends up going crazy. They are watched over by Major Stance and Colonel Bullard (Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Terrence Howard, both of whom have played Tuskegee airmen in previous films). These two commanding officers strive to get their pilots better planes and strive even harder to get them assigned to missions in which they can prove their worth by directly engaging the German Luftwaffe.
The Ammo Dump had high hopes for this film. The potential for a WWII dogfight-loaded drama soaked with racial tension was as high as a P-51’s ceiling. Combine that potential with access to the Lucasfilm coffers and the special effects wizardry of Industrial Light and Magic and, if one will pardon the cliché, the sky should have been the limit.
Oh, but the film crashes and burns like so many bullet-riddled aircraft. The script makes Ed Wood’s work sound like Shakespeare. Even performances by skilled actors like Gooding fall unemotionally flat.
Furthermore, there’s a tacked-on love story which is completely dubious considering the time and locale. And Hemingway is as fair in his treatment of whites as Steven Spielberg is with his treatment of all Germans. Despite the squadron leader’s brief line about how not all white people are racist scum, not more than one white man in the entire picture first looks at the Tuskegee flyboys as fellow Americans and comrades-in-arms. Every white soldier is either a bigot, a racist, or, at the very least, prejudice.
And perhaps the greatest mistake of the film was the choice of director. Anthony Hemingway lacks the directorial chops to direct a big-budget action flick, having never actually helmed any picture before this one. Antoine Fuqua, director of “King Arthur” and “Shooter,” would have made a more sensible choice, bringing both the experience and the racial spirit.
The one saving grace through it all is Terrence Howard’s (“Iron Man”) performance. Somehow he ended up with the majority of the actual good lines and he delivers them with convincing force and emotion. Had he been supported by a well-written script and surrounded by a more competent cadre of thespians instead of rappers-who-think-they’re-actors, “Red Tails” might have avoided becoming the plane wreck it turned out to be.
In short, George Lucas may have been building up “Red Tails” for twenty-three years, but one can’t help but feel that he pushed this bird out of the nest a decade or two too soon.
Ammo Dump rating: 4 out of 10 bullets
(Rated PG-13; 121 min.)
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