Judge Steve Power just wants to fly! Quit keepin' him on the ground!
"Nothing is difficult, everything's a challenge. Through adversity to the stars! From the last plane, to the last bullet, to the last minute, to the last man…we fight!"
I first caught wind of Red Tails back in the late 1980s or early '90s, when George Lucas had stepped away from the Star Wars legacy he'd birthed, and returned to his roots producing and nurturing films like Radioland Murders and Tucker: The Man and His Dream. But fate had George step back into that sci-fi galaxy far, far away, and his more personal projects would have to wait. Well, the wait is over, as this tale of an African American fighter squadron in World War II finally sees the light of day. Funded entirely out of pocket by the Father of the Force and distributed by 20th Century Fox, Red Tails may not have made much of an impression at the box office, but is this flight worth taking home?
Facts of the Case
Italy, 1944. As the war takes its toll on Allied forces in Europe, a squadron of black pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen are finally given the chance to prove themselves—even as they battle discrimination on the ground. It's a tribute to the unsung heroes who rose above extraordinary challenges and ultimately soared into history.
I'm going to get this out the way quickly: Red Tails is hokey, cheesy, poorly acted, sparsely plotted, and predictable from the opening frame to the closing credits. Actors portray thinly drawn archetypes, spewing lines with the sort of theatrical melodrama you would expect from basic cable, or perhaps community theatre. Even seasoned veterans like Terrance Howard (Iron Man) and Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry Maguire) are more than a little ridiculous. You almost expect Howard to nod his head affirmatively after every line. And Cuba, what the hell is up with that pipe?!
You could almost get past the weak characterizations, if the screenplay hinged on anything other than the most rudimentary war film elements and the basest black vs. white racism. But it doesn't. We're talking pre-Saving Private Ryan World War II here, complete with rah rah propaganda, more motivating speeches than you can shake a Thompson Sub Machine gun at, and as much nostalgic "golly gee whiz!" whimsy as anything to come out of Hollywood in the post-war years. It's not entirely fair to slam Red Tails for its idyllic portrayal of the war to end all wars, especially considering the similarly kitschy tone Lucas employed in the Star Wars prequels. Regardless, this is in every way a throwback film, more valuable as a tool for educating Junior High kids on 1940s racism and bigotry in the military, the Tuskegee Experiment, and the brave men of the 332nd rather than a historical document. I can't say I outright hated my time with the film, just that its cornball nature and heavy-handed attempts at slamming its message home are something of a detriment and really bury the film whenever the planes aren't flying.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When our heroes DO step into planes and zoom around, things get entertaining in a big hurry. The digital wizards at ILM have cooked up some truly thrilling aerial antics, as these vintage planes spin, dive, and spew fiery lead at each other. Given the logistics in recreating dogfights of the era, the digital approach definitely works best here, allowing for action beats and a whiz bang factor that could never be achieved through practical means. This would all be for naught, if the effects didn't hold up to scrutiny, but that's no issue here. Watching the actors in mock-up cockpits going through the motions while things blow up with aplomb is every bit as riveting as it was in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope 35 years ago. The look and feel of these scenes is truly worth the price of admission, and the sound design just plain roars!
All of this eye and ear candy is presented in an exquisite 2.40:1/1080p AVC-4 encoded high definition picture that shines with clarity, wonderful color depth, and a razor sharp detail. The is complemented by a roaring DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track with all the right punch.
Extras are pretty extensive. Leading the pack is an hour look at the history of the real Tuskegee Airmen, with a ton of interview footage, and all the reverence accorded these survivors of the great war. Cuba Gooding Jr's narration works quite well, and the surviving pilots are charismatic speakers. The rest of the stuff, unfortunately, is of the "promotional fluff" variety, including brief sit downs with George Lucas and Director Anthony Hemingway, and a look at the cast of the film. It's okay for a once over, but you'll get bored pretty quickly.
Red Tails is a nostalgic war melodrama wrapped in a top notch presentation. The action is frenetic and wonderfully staged, but the retro feel of Lucas' pet project won't resonate so well with modern audiences. Which is kind of a shame, since the earnestness of it all is infectious for those with an interest in the source material.
Not Guilty, but only Just.
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