90 Minutes of potential brilliance extended to two hours
If George Lucas wanted to atone to fans for the backlash behind both the Star Wars prequels as well as the continual tinkering with the original trilogy, Red Tails desperately wants to be it. Though it’s directed and written by a trio of people (Anthony Hemingway directing and John Ridley & Aaron McGruder writing) Lucas’s handprints are all over this film. It’s hard to credit Hemingway for directing the film, especially with rumors of extensive reshoots that Lucas personally handled floating around, as the same sorts of story-telling mechanisms found in Red Tails are cribbed wholesale from Lucas’s prior work.
It’s mostly a good thing, as Lucas’s flair for the spectacular and ability to mine drama out of impressive action sequences is on full display, his ability to be overindulgent in an attempt to be inclusive takes what could be a tight 90 minute tribute to heroes history classes don’t teach enough of and pads it to a two hour near melodrama. Fashioned as a serial from the era it takes place in, World War 2, Red Tails follows four men in the legendary 332nd Airborne (commonly known as the Tuskegee Airmen).
Easy (Nate Parker) is the squadron leader, a man who uses liquor to calm his nerves. Lightning (David Oyelowo) is his best friend and a daredevil in training. Joker (Elijah Kelley) is the squad’s cutup while Junior (Tristan Wilds) wants a more mature nickname in spite of his youth in comparison to his fellow fighters. We follow the group as they go from handling mop up duties far away from the front; taking out munitions trains and plants, we follow the 332nd to their eventual inclusion in the war effort escorting bombers in the European theater campaign.
When the film focuses on the men, and their experiences in war, Red Tails is a remarkable film about courage in the face of everything conspiring to prevent it. With some powerful character work from Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard, the only name actors with substantial minutes in the film, this is a film focusing on relative unknowns who carry the film despite the sometimes dreadful dialogue they’re given. While none of the four have names and reputations as actors it’s actually in their favor.
Lucas taps into the same element Clint Eastwood did in Flags of Our Fathers in that it gives us a sense of history. Having famous, established actors would detract from the Tuskegee Airmen’s place in history and having four actors without large reputations allows them to sink into the moment. It feels like we’re closer to watching a serial from the 1940s than it is a modern production because outside of a handful of actors we don’t recognize anyone instantly.
Nate Parker in particular stands out the most of the four main actors featured in the film. He has a presence to him that immediately stands out; it’s almost as if we’re watching a young Denzel Washington on screen, before he found fame, fortune and the sorts of roles we know him for. He has a tough role given that it’s the most prominent as well as given some of the film’s cheesiest moments. It’s not quite acting reel material but there’s something there that Lucas can’t quite harness. Lucas isn’t a director known for bringing out notable performances in his actors and this is no different; this is much more about the film’s action sequences.
They are absolutely spectacular and the one thing that’s easily noticeable that he’s adapted from Star Wars. Lucas’s shot design and composition have been further refined from the ones he used in Star Wars. They’re less dense than they were in the prequels with the flow and narrative adapted from the original trilogy. Lucas has gone on record as saying that he envisioned the Star Wars space battles as being science fiction dog fights and he’s crafted the action sequences from this one as World War 2 versions of his more famous ones. They’re a bit easier to follow and give the film a dramatic heft to it; when the men discuss the hazards of war and why they fight we feel exactly what they’re talking about.
The film’s main problem is that a handful of times it veers away from this. The film’s main subplot, of a romance between lightning and a local Italian girl, feels forced and added onto the film. It tries to make a pivotal moment at the end of the film more gravitas but ends up taking away from it. The half hour of the film devoted to it doesn’t add anything to it; Red Tails functions at its best when we’re focused on the warriors and their battle.
If George Lucas wanted to craft a film for young people to learn history from, Red Tails could’ve been much more with much less. As it stands it’s an enjoyable albeit flawed film.
Director: Anthony Hemingway Notable Cast: Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Tristan Wilds, Elijah Kelley, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard Writer(s): John Ridley and Aaron McGruder