George Lucas claims he’s retiring from blockbusters, but he’s going out on a high note. After he fell off the creative cliff with the Star Wars prequels — not to mention all that has come since — it would be easy to write him off as a has-been, whose special effect studio, Industrial Light & Magic, was the successful spinoff of his directorial efforts at Lucasfilm; Scotch tape to his 3M. But Red Tails shows that underneath the excesses he really does still know what he’s doing, and director Anthony Hemingway has the chops to back it up.
This is part of a story of the Tuskegee Airmen, of which a prequel and a sequel may still be forthcoming, to deal with the more serious social commentary. This part, though, is the earnest, patriotic, World War II shoot-em-up. Lucas himself tries to liken it to a 1940s John Wayne war movie, and he’s not too far off the mark. It’s uncomplicated, unironic, and even corny and clichéd at times, but it’s fast and fun, and sometimes that’s all you need.
The story centers on one particular squadron of pilots, stationed in Italy in 1944. The leader is Martin “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker); his best friend is Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo). Easy likes to go along with protocol and not make waves, though he tends to escape his stresses inside a bottle. Lightning, on the other hand, has a chip on his shoulder; he starts out a ladies’ man, but quickly meets a local — Sofia (Daniela Ruah) — and falls in love. The squadron is rounded out by a bunch of other guys, but few of them are very well-rounded. Ray “Ray Gun” Gannon (Tristan Wilds) is young and baby-faced so everyone calls him “Junior”; David “Deacon” Watkins (Marcus T. Paulk) is religious and keeps a Black Jesus picture in his cockpit for luck; Chief “Coffee” Coleman (Andre Royo) is the irascible ground mechanic.
The entire company is headed up by Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) with his right-hand man, Major Emanuel Stance (Cuba Gooding, Jr.). Bullard spends much of his time back at the Pentagon fighting for funding and supplies with a racist fellow colonel (Bryan Cranston) and earning the respect of a high-powered general (Gerald McRaney). Stance keeps order at the base.
Of course, at first the airmen aren’t exactly given any great assignments, but they catch a break with a chance to provide air cover for a landing mission. Not only does the group take out a good number of the German Luftwaffe at the landing site, our heroes follow a limping plane back and lay waste to the whole aerodrome, making their good name. From that point they get regular work guarding bomber squadrons deep into Axis territory.
There are a lot of faults to be found here. The love story makes a good starting point; never go to a Lucas-produced movie for the romantic angle. The dialogue, especially of the white bomber pilots, can be clunky and wooden; they literally go from “I don’t think they’ll be very good” to “they sure surprised us”, telling us exactly what we’re supposed to get out of the scene. The chatter among the airmen is better, in part because John Ridley’s script got punched up by Aaron McGruder. Yes, The Boondocks‘ McGruder, who was among the loudest voices taking Lucas to task for Jar-Jar Binks.
McGruder’s help may have had something to do with the way the explicit racial politics play out. The Help can fairly be faulted for focusing on the fact that a white women helped get the black women’s stories out — the role of social capital in a civil rights struggle is worthy of serious discussion — but here what help Bullard and the company receive is played down. They prove themselves out of their own strength and will.
But really the film is centered on the aerial heroics, and here it shines. The dogfights are beautifully framed and make it clear where three or even four planes are with relation to each other in the sky. The camera-work as they dive through constellations of Flying Fortresses is exquisite. And I’ll admit that it’s great to have a clear enemy without having to worry about who he is beyond “the guy shooting at our guys”.
So yes, it’s corny and clichéd, and simplistic almost to the point of jingoism. But if you’re going to reject an action war film for that then you’re going to have to go back and throw out Flying Tigers, The Fighting Seabees, They Were Expendable, and Sands of Iwo Jima with it. That I’m not willing to do.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.