George Lucas’s last big hurrah (unless Indiana Jones comes out of retirement) is a hackneyed ode to a group of heroes–the Tuskegee Airmen–who deserve better treatment than this cliché interrupted by dazzling, FX-laden dogfights, smoke-filled explosions, boring (sunny romancing and stalag escaping) subplots, and oxygen-depleting dialogue. Amid the too-blue skies I would never associate with the dark days of World War II, it’s not only the German fighter planes going down in flames; not to belittle the effectiveness of the first African-American aerial combat unit, successfully battling against the fierce flying prowess of the Nazi pilots as well as the racist misbeliefs within the American Armed Forces and the hard-headed, small-brained military brass who are averse to change their long-ingrained belief that black men are unfit for battle duty.
Lucas spent over 23 years developing the film, “seeking out a director who could bring his vision to life and deliver an adventure film of stirring heroics.” That would be Anthony Hemingway, whose previous feature experience has been as an assistant director (last having done work on 2006’s “Freedomland”) who smoothly moved to the small screen to helm odd episodes (“True Blood,” “Heroes,” “ER,” “CSI: NY,” and others) before settling down with extensive producer and director duties on the well received series “Treme.” Yet, even with the support of Lucas and the special effects behemoth that bears his name (and which created the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” franchises), Hemingway is shackled by Lucas’s monochromatic jingoistic vision, including a script dripping with patriotic fervor and lines seemingly plucked from war-time cinematic relics, including Nicholas Ray’s “Flying Leathernecks.”
“Germans! Let’s get ’em!”
Sure, there’s an abundance of cocky spunk and derring-do, but barely enough time (considering the film runs over two hours long) to broaden characters beyond their cardboard-thin, valor-filled veneers. It’s not that the talent is lacking. The core of the fighting ensemble consists of nickname fighters such as Easy aka Lightning (Nate Parker), Junior aka Ray Gun (Tristan Wilds), Joker (Elijah Kelley), Winky (Leslie Odom, Jr.), and Neon (Kevin Phillips), with pipe-smoking Cuba Gooding as the mild-mannered major and Terrence Howard as his boss and Washington go-between. Anxious for real combat, they are instead plowing down enemy munition trains and trucks in 1944 Italy. Howard’s Colonel Bullard exhorts to his obstinate higher-ups, “You shut us down or let us fly!”
Eventually, they get the long distance call and then a promotion—from their ancient, taped-together P-40 fighters to nice, shiny P-51s. Seems the flyboys of the 332nd Fighter Group take them right out of the boxes and can pilot them without any new training. Maybe it’s not the variety of the plane that allows our heroes to plop themselves in their shiny cockpits and take flawlessly to the skies AND shoot down a shitload of Germans. Call me picky, but something seems too perfect here. And where’s the grim of war? Everyone’s so damn clean!
“Red Tails” might just find its audience as a half-decent family film which allows for youngsters of any race a collective role model experience. But for the curmudgeons amongst us, it walks too close a line that separates war’s harsh realities with Lucas’s odd Saturday afternoon serial approach to the subject.