After years of quacking away about Hollywood’s refusal to finance his all-black WW2 movie Red Tails, George Lucas finally remembered that he’s worth more than three billion dollars and just paid for the damn thing himself. He’d have done better investing in another Death Star. A handful of decent performances struggle to get themselves noticed in this cartoonish, quasi-historical nonsense, which makes inauthentic superheroes out of the brave pilots it purports to celebrate.
In The War, an Allied bomber convoy is making its way over some bad Nazi country or other. The ponderous ‘heavies’ are vulnerable to German attacks, but their fighter escorts are even more vulnerable to temptation and zoom off to hunt a few straggling Jerries, leaving the bombers open to attack. Wouldn’t it be convenient, one of the bomber pilots seems to be thinking as he chokes on his own blood, if we could find some escorts who weren’t selfish twats? CUT TO ITALY!
The 332nd Fighter Group, an all-black detachment of pilots, are given hand-me-down planes and relegated to insignificant duties despite boasting some of the USAF’s most talented flyers – chief among them Lieutenant Joe ‘Lightning’ Little (Oyelowo), a reckless aerial virtuoso and relentless womaniser who yearns to be let at the foe. His friend and captain Marty ‘Easy’ Julian, who’s getting through the war with the help of whisky rather than women, despairs of ever getting Lightning to follow orders – the Tuskegee Airmen’s reputation for erratic behaviour is, after all, simply more ammo for the racist Pentagon chiefs determined to keep them off the front line.
However, it looks as if Easy, Julian and the rest of their squadron (Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelley, three quarters of the entire cast of The Wire) may finally get their chance to shine/get shot/burn to death when their tenacious commanding officer Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) persuades the top brass to trust his boys and let them provide air support for an amphibious landing. The ‘coloureds’ prove themselves to be almost supernaturally good at shooting Germans, obviously, and more missions (allong with natty red-tailed new planes) follow – how long do you think it’ll be before a key member of the team gets killed at the very moment of their greatest victory? Clue: probably not long.
George Lucas (who, despite me going on about him, only executive-produced Red Tails; TV director Anthony Hemingway, however, was seemingly happy to sit back and let the Neckless Wonder mastermind his debut feature) has been none-too-subtle in drawing comparisons between the segregation and mistreatment which the Tuskegee Airmen faced from their white comrades and the struggle which he’s gone through to get this film onscreen. It’s a nonsensical association, obviously, but the shame of the matter is that Lucas obviously believes in it – and this film – with all his heart.
Unfortunately, he’s chosen to show his abiding support for the Tuskegee Airmen by fictionalising their (already fairly incredible) story and turning a group of fallible, fascinating men into one-note generic goodies with a maximum of two personality traits each. Easy is self-doubting and a drinker. Lightning is hot-headed and passionate. ‘Smoky’ Salem (Ne-Yo) has a funny accent. Ray Gun (oh, who cares who played him) has a toy ray gun. Manor Emmanuel Stance (CUBA GOODING JR., WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?) has a) a stupid hat and b) a stupid pipe, because fuck actually giving your only Oscar-winner anything to work with when you can just let him play in the dressing up box. The only German to get any screentime ruins a reasonable dogfight sequence by SHAKING HIS FUCKING FIST at one of the Red Tails and shouting “Die, foolish African!”.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticising the actors. Oyelowo and Parker absolutely make the most of their time on solid ground, which is the only chance they get to Do Acting, and build quite a believable little rapport within the limitations of their characters. Gooding Jr puts his pipe in his mouth at appropriate moments with an élan which is nothing short of inspiring, and Ne-Yo plays the guitar a bit as befits his status as a musician-pretending-to-be-an-actor. He’s not even the most interesting musician-pretending-to-be-an-actor in it – Method Man, late of the Wu Tang Clan, turns up at one point for no reason at all. Oh, and Bryan Cranston has about five lines. Five lines is probably as much as you want in Red Tails, though, because the script is the worst thing of all. “What the hell was you doing up there?” snaps Easy at a louche and self-satisfied Lightning. “I was beatin’ up on Hitler!”, the ace replies. Dick.
But at least the action is good, right? Wrong. Producer Rick McCallum (Star Wars Episodes I-III) should never be allowed near something with wings again – even without lasers, the hour or so of PLANEVISION is very, very obviously CG-ed. Tony Scott would have done it with real planes and sat on a wingtip at 10,000ft with a Handycam. It’s just another small disappointment in a film full of them. The cast deserved to make a more rewarding film; the audience deserves to see a more entertaining one; and most of all, the Tuskegee Airmen deserve a memorial which celebrates their extraordinary achievements rather than ignoring them for the sake of $58m worth of cartoon explosions.