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‘Red Tails’ drops the ball a number of times in its execution, but it deserves an A for effort

Red Tails

Directed by Anthony Hemingway

Screenplay by John Ridley

2012, USA

George Lucas tried for more than twenty years to get a movie made about the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black fighter pilot unit that served during the Second World War. As with most passion projects, the biggest victory (getting the story made at all) also caused the biggest problem (the pressure to get it made hampered it from being made well). In the case of Red Tails, it’s all the more maddening because the potential for a great movie was there, but it needed a little more coaxing to bring it out.

Give director Anthony Hemingway (with rumored assistance from Lucas himself) credit for creating arresting action sequences. So many of today’s computer-generated action films are said to look like cartoons or video games because they have no real sense of gravity or physics. However Red Tails strives to give a feeling of what these pilots felt, of acceleration and depth of field. Since Lucas was involved, one might expect a movie that turns World War II into Return of the Jedi, but that is not the case.

When the pilots reached the ground is when the movie lost its footing. The screenplay by John Ridley (Three Kings, Undercover Brother) and Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks) seems to be only about 50% ready for prime time. There were some strong and affecting scenes, especially between squad leaders Easy (Nate Parker) and Lightning (David Oyelowo), but there were also some lines so awkward that they will draw groans and unintended laughter. The film seemed to have at least one subplot and two characters too many; it couldn’t focus anywhere, thus diluting the power of the Airmen’s achievements.

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Yet because of a solid cast (including many alumni from HBO’s beloved The Wire), Red Tails has some scenes that work, and work very well. Certain characters’ fates are telegraphed so directly that they might as well be wearing signs on their foreheads, but their final scenes are well-executed and heartfelt. Almost every major character is a stereotype – the Uptight Leader, the Maverick, the Religious Guy – but as Lucas knows well, stereotypes can work with the right actor in the right role.

Whenever Red Tails failed, it was because it tried too hard. A moment was sincere to the point of schmaltz, or the story tried to pack too much into too short a scene. This is a film which drops the ball a number of times in its execution, but it deserves an A for effort.

– Mark Young