From a reviewer’s point of view, RED TAILS is the kind of film you love to write about. You come away from the movie so angry for paying good money to see it that your anger rises to the level of inspiration. Inspiration to absolutely go off on how awful the movie is. I know that very few of you will feel sorry for me considering the poor reviews RED TAILS received and, most tellingly, the fact that it was made by George Lucas, the Sith Lord of Killing Memories. And you have no reason to feel sorry for me because I went into this movie knowing it was going to be a 2-hour slow motion suicide jump. I knew RED TAILS wasn’t screened for critics until the day before it opened. And I was fully aware of its Rotten Tomatoes score (currently hovering at 35%). However, I also knew this was a pet project for George Lucas that had been gestating in his head since 1988. For every major director who sets out to make a long sought after personal project and fails at it (e.g. Barry Levinson’s TOYS, Terry Gilliam’s DON QUIXOTE, and Martin Scorsese’s GANGS OF NEW YORK), there is a director who comes up with a gem (e.g. Steven Spielberg’s SCHINDLER’S LIST, James Cameron’s TITANIC, and Tim Burton’s ED WOOD). And it is for that reason I am always curious to see the fruits of that filmmaker’s vision and labor. Put simply, what is the big deal with this particular story that X director has waited this long to put it on screen?

RED TAILS is the true story of the Tuskegee airmen, who were a squadron of African-American fighter pilots in Europe during World War II. After being relegated to performing boring reconnaissance runs in territories devoid of any Nazis, the pilots are finally given a chance to show their dogfighting skills against the German’s Luftwaffe air squadron. This story is about a group of these pilots: Joe “Lightening” Little (David Oyelowo), Martin “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), Ray “Ray Gun” Gannon (Tristan Wilds), Samuel “Joker” George (Elijah Kelley), Major Emanuel Stance (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard). The story shows how the pilots faced racism and a hostile military bureaucracy and rose above those obstacles.

RED TAILS is a well-intentioned story that a) came too late and b) required a better director, writer, and cast (basically, no George Lucas). Although the HBO-produced THE TUSKAGEE AIRMEN and Lucas pal Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN were both released in the 1990’s, they are recent enough to be remembered so that RED TAILS cannot help but be compared to those films. I never saw THE TUSKAGEE AIRMEN, but I’m aware it’s a popular film that was well-received upon its release in 1995. From what I’ve read about the film, it gives a complete picture of the historical account such that it makes RED TAILS an almost unnecessary repeat. As for SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, that film set the tone for pretty much all future European-set, WWII movies and video games. In a manner of speaking, Spielberg was able to capture the genie in a bottle in envisioning the truest portrayal of the European Theater in WWII. RED TAILS does not look nor feel anything like PRIVATE RYAN and its not intended to do so, but while watching it, you sure feel like it did so that it could at least salvage a little bit of self-dignity.

However, the biggest problem plaguing RED TAILS is the same problem that has plagued the last three STAR WARS movies and the last INDIANA JONES movie: George Lucas. Now I’m not one of those rabid Lucas haters (despite my catty name calling above) who act like Lucas’ desecration of the STAR WARS movies is akin to cursing God. So he’s no longer capable of telling stories and making compelling films. So what? It doesn’t lessen my interest in the man. His failure to make good movies doesn’t take away from the fact that Lucas still made some of the best films in my lifetime. For that, a part of me is still a little curious to see his continuing efforts even if I fully expect them to disappoint me.

What handicapped RED TAILS for me from the very beginning was my lack of interest in the subject matter. I love stories about World War II, but for some reason, the story of the Tuskegee airmen has never swayed my interest. At the same time, with the right screenplay, the right director, and the right cast, this story could have easily turned into a compelling one. I don’t know how much influence Lucas had over the script, but from watching it, I would guess it was quite substantial. Every conceivable cliché is present here. You have the young reckless pilot who can’t wait to take to the skies and kill him some Nazis. You have a hotshot daredevil pilot who breaks all the rules and defies the odds (guess who dies in this movie?). There’s the leader who’s afraid to take charge and lead his men. Its all there. As for the Nazis, they are presented as one-dimensional, practically faceless objects that reminded me of video game bad guys. In fact, everything about this movie is one-dimensional. Nuance and subtlety are foreign concepts in this story. What’s more, I couldn’t tell whether Lucas was intending to show us an action movie that at times looks and feels like STAR WARS or a dramatic, accurate account of racism, war, and friendship. In doing press interviews for RED TAILS, Lucas stated that this film was the closest thing to STAR WARS that we would see from him. Why? Is this the type of story that should even remind us of STAR WARS? The Nazi pilots are clearly made to look like stormtroopers (the STAR WARS variety, not the Nazi kind) and they have a lead pilot with a huge scar running down his face that I figured was supposed to be Darth Vader. Overall, this was a poor portrayal of the characters and I was hoping to see something more serious and gritty rather than something that seemed to come out of a comic book.

Aside from being known to botch stories, George Lucas is also notorious for eliciting bad performances from his actors. I didn’t have to wonder whether the cast was simply untalented because no matter how talented of a thespian you are, Lucas will make sure you look and sound as bad as you possibly can onscreen. Now, we all know we shouldn’t expect anything from Cuba Gooding Jr. (with the exception of his flash-in-the-pan performance in JERRY MAGUIRE) so no amount of bad dialogue is going to ruin an already ruined career (NOTE: Half the shots with Cuba show him putting a pipe into his mouth). However, a little bit of me held out some hope that the rest of the cast, especially the usually great Terrence Howard, would be able to rise above the dialogue. Nope. There were more than a handful of moments that literally made me cringe in my seat after hearing the words that came out of the actors’ mouths.

Not surprisingly, the visual effects work in the dogfighting sequences look fantastic and perfectly realistic. Unfortunately, these sequences are shot so limply and in such a video game manner that they offer up zero suspense. They sort of reminded me of the action sequences in Zack Snyder’s SUCKERPUNCH. For all the explosions and fast-moving action, you find yourself tuning out and getting bored after seeing one too many such sequences.

Harry Knowles of the website AINT IT COOL NEWS likened RED TAILS to the old EC Comics. I’ve never read those comics, but I know what he’s referring to. However, even if that is what Lucas intended his movie to evoke, the film remains an unmemorable experience that made me wonder how 23 years of development could result in something so lifeless.

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