Sunday, January 29, 2012

Reel To Reel: Red Tails

These colors don't run, but they do fly.

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Nate Parker
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: World War II aerial combat injuries, mild language

George Lucas modeled the space battle sequences in Star Wars after World War II aerial dogfight footage, so a film paying tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen -- the Army's elite black flying squadron -- seems like a good fit for his production banner. But that's before I realized the film felt like an extended Star Wars fighter sequence that just so happened to include a plot, characters and a few compulsory clich├ęd scenes exploring the racial realities of the WWII military.

The Airmen racked up one of the most impressive records of the war, but as we meet them they are relegated to garbage-collector duty, shooting easy targets with patched-up used aircraft. A military report finds them nearly unfit for duty. We can see they are being set up for failure. It's a scenario the Axis would love to brag about through Hitler's propaganda machine.

Major Emanuelle Stance (Gooding, Jr.) is the pipe-smoking leader of what the Army considers an experiment -- a black fighting force that exists solely to placate somebody's call for racial equality in the military. But Bullard is not one to dwell on racial politics. He sees his fighters as recipients of great privilege in getting to fight and possibly to die for their country. As for his scrappy pilots, they are looking for real action beyond blowing up munitions trains. They have a strong ally in Col. A.J. Bullard (Howard), their Pentagon representative who knows how to tread through the combat zone of racial politics in an nearly all-white military.

The Army is dealing with a big problem in the air: bombers aren't getting through to their targets as German squadrons lure cocky pilots into dogfights when they should be sticking beside the heavies. Major Stance offers a deal: get us new planes and a real mission and "we'll light up the board." The Army delivers shiny, brand-new fighters which the squadron adorns with red tails, "to make them stand out."

We spend plenty of time with the Airmen on the ground, enough to make the film a black Top Gun: "Easy," the ace pilot, "Junior," the aspiring ace, along with "Lightning," "Joker," and "Smokey." They live for the fight and the wisecrack, and we see plenty of them. They have their issues, true, and their beef with Uncle Sam and The Man, but all that's secondary to the mission. This and the battle sequences are where Red Tails flies, but at times it sputters with ditzy pedestrian dialogue -- "I hope those Red Tails are with us next time!" The racism in this movie is soft-pedaled, save for a token barfight between one of the Airmen and a white bigot which is discussed in the next scene and then tossed away like a live grenade.

About those air battles: they are nothing short of thrilling, even though most of the action is CGI-based. I read George Lucas went back to studying WWII footage to prepare for this film, and it shows. Lucas also stepped up to fund the movie and its marketing when Hollywood studios shied away. Early box office reports hint he may barely break even, but it's not like he's hurting for cash.

Red Tails is a labor of love and heroism, and it does justice to its subject matter. But it doesn't into the category of epic war film, as much as some of us would desire. If this film has any stereotypes, they're not based on race but on Hollywood laziness and the lack of a good script doctor.

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