Directed By: Anthony Hemingway
Starring: Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Tristan Wilds, Elijah Kelley, Marcus T Paulk, Ne-Yo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Bryan Cranston, Daniela Ruah, Michael B. Jordan, Andre Royo, Method Man
Sure, a January release is never a good sign, but how can you have low expectations for a film about the feats of WWII’s Tuskegee Airmen? Plus, you’d think a script based on such a stirring true story would have enough of a head start not to fall into too many holes. Maybe I don’t know as much as I think about screenwriting, but I know enough to say that Red Tails has a downright terrible script and it’s that bad apple that poisoned the rest of what could have been a really exciting and moving film.
Red Tails tells the story of the pilots in the Tuskegee training program in World War II, specifically Martin “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo), Ray “Ray Gun” Gannon (Tristan Wilds) and Samuel “Joker” George (Elijah Kelley). The foursome makes for an excellent team, but thanks to segregation, they’re stuck shooting ground bound targets like trains and trucks while the white pilots fight off the enemy during bomber escorts.
However, their big day finally comes and thanks to some negotiating on behalf of Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard), Easy, Lightning and the rest of the Tuskegee Airmen get to take to the sky and guard the bombers from German attack. While the guys are thrilled with the success of their mission and the opportunity for more chances to fight, the pressure increases as they come to the realization that they really can die out there.
Red Tails has been in development for over 20 years and this is what we get? The story itself is, of course, brilliant material, but the screenplay is just an absolute mess and it’s pretty obvious right from the start. Red Tails jumps right into the action, showing off a bomb-ridden aerial battle during which white fighter pilots fail to protect the bomber planes they’re assigned. Not a single character is memorable, it’s tough to tell who’s fighting for which side and, worst of all, the dialogue is atrocious.
At least when we move to the Tuskegee fighters we get the chance to put some names to faces. Their opening sequence is rather well formatted and offers a decent amount of character development, but it’s done through painfully cliché in-flight chatter and behavior. Even when the boys are on the ground their dialogue is incredibly uninspiring. Park and Oyelowo manage to elevate a couple of scenes with strong performances, but, otherwise, anything the actors accomplish is drowned in truisms and poor Terrence Howard gets the worst of it as he’s stuck with the character that has to give those climatic inspirational speeches.
Perhaps the dialogue issue might stem from the fact that the characters don’t have all that much to talk about, but the war. There’s a rather lame attempt at giving Easy a drinking problem and we’re beaten over the head with Lightning’s obsession with women so often that when he finally meets the girl of his dreams, it comes across as more of a parody than true love. In an attempt not to spoil anything, one character in particular runs into a relatable and, therefore, rather heart wrenching scenario, but then is ripped from that honesty and is thrown into German territory for the film’s most ludicrous sequence, an escape from a German prison.
Dragging the film down further is the editing. In fact, Red Tails might have been mildly enjoyable if someone took out those incredibly awkward long pauses Ben Burtt and Michael O’Halloran thought had some purpose being in this film. The dialogue in the script is flat out bad, but John Ridley might have gotten away with some of it had the editing duo not left the audience a whole second or two to think about how ridiculous each and every line is before moving onto the next. Plus, it completely kills the material’s emotional power. Almost every scene of Red Tails feels as though they’re snippets of a conversation merely stitched together; nothing is fluid and, therefore, nothing is capable of achieving the intended effect – to sell the moment.
Also on the technical front, director Anthony Hemingway absolutely wastes his extensive set design and beautiful locations. There is a handful of sweeping aerial shots, but most are too poorly placed to appreciate and then he just doesn’t know how to frame a shot. Rather than consider the costumes and set design he’s got to work with, Red Tails looks as though Hemingway merely stuck the camera here and there for the sake of coverage. Both the fault of Hemingway and his editors, the images never correlate with the emotional level of a scene, making even the most important matters slide right by.
While this definitely sounds like a scathing review of Red Tails, it’s really not all that bad. In fact, thanks to the hefty dose of aerial battles, the two hours went by rather fast and don’t leave you fuming for having wasted your time, rather just feeling nothing at all – minus an overwhelming urge to slap that pipe from Cuba Gooding Jr.’s mouth. This movie had everything going for it from its incredible source material to a solid cast, but it’s all squandered on a dismal script and shoddy filmmaking.