It’s hard not to talk about the World War II action drama Red Tails without bringing up George Lucas. Making a fighter pilot film had always been a dream of the man whose greatest strength was filming dog fights in the skies. Lucas, who allegedly oversaw reshoots and worked a bit on the script, receives only a producer credit here, but he probably should’ve had a lot more input on this tale of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. It’s a film that has its heart in the right place and nothing but the best of intentions, but also one the cries out for some sort of real guidance to hold this debacle together.
The film starts in 1944 Italy where American pilots are vastly being outclassed and outmanoeuvred by German pilots with better technology and a better idea of their surroundings. In search of a new tactic that could help win the air war, the US government reluctantly begins using the underutilized squad of all African-American fighter pilots in the 332nd fighter squad. The film follows the exploits of a handful of the soldiers into battle after previously only being used for taking out trains and other forms of transportation.
There’s so much wrong with this film that it’s hard to tell where to begin. The script comes credited to John Ridley and Boondocks creator Aaron MacGruder, which makes the film’s clearly Lucas influenced dialog entirely baffling. I like to think that Ridley and MacGruder know better than to come up with something this hammy, but I wouldn’t put it past Lucas to have tinkered with this somewhat extensively. Brief flashes of wit and edge from the credited writing staff show through in fleeting moments, but some of this dialog is bad even by Lucas movie standards.
Aside from the stunning dogfights and the massive attention to period detail (except for an insert wide shot of the Pentagon that was clearly shot in modern day), Red Tails has no structure or discipline whatsoever. This film feels unfinished and almost in unreleasable condition. No scenes actually transition between each other with some bleeding over or fading into the next one without rhyme or reason.
The dogfights are puzzlingly photographed, but even quieter sequences feel strangely subdued and without a firm tone. The God awful musical score – one of the worst in recent memory – hardly plays at all during actual air battles but swells so loudly in scenes of people talking in war rooms that the actors are forced to be hammy and stop their lines ever few seconds to build what they’re saying around the music.
The acting on display here ranges from scenery chewing (Terrence Howard, as the squad’s highest ranking booster) to pipe chewing (Cuba Gooding Jr., who literally does nothing in this film other than gnaw on an unlit pipe in every scene he’s in) to absolute flatlining (pretty much every member of the squad, save for Nate Parker as the alcoholic squad leader Easy, and Ne-Yo as a pilot named Smokey who really seems to be dangerously close to doing something really racist the entire time he’s on screen) to pissed that he even got out of bed for this (Bryan Cranston, briefly seen as a racist bureaucrat). Not even the squad hotshot Lightning (David Oyelowo) or the corps keener Junior (Michael B. Jordan) are able to snap out of whatever coma they find themselves in. This also says nothing about the hilarious incongruity of seeing Method Man (playing a mechanic) reacting to a plane going down in flames.
It would be tempting to lay all of the blame for Red Tails‘ failure at the feet of Lucas, but the lion’s share of the blame here has to go to the credited director. Television vet Anthony Hemmingway is in way over his head on this one and his unsteady hand taints the film so badly that it can’t fully recover. All of the films technical problems from the bad acting by a talented cast, poor cinematography, and utterly incoherent editing are all things that begin and end with the director. It doesn’t matter how many cooks there were in the kitchen, if the one that was behind the majority of it isn’t assured, the whole cause is lost.
Industrial Light and Magic clearly worked their asses off to try to make this all work, and while their efforts are greatly appreciated, this was a film made by all the wrong people outside of the post production and art department staff. If the film wasn’t so gosh darned earnest and well intentioned, Red Tails would come across as something of a bad joke. Instead, it’s a frustrating experience to sit through that makes one wonder why Lucas just didn’t do it all himself in the first place.