Monday, October 8, 2012

Review: Red Tails

In 1988 George Lucas started planning an epic cinematic trilogy centred around the story of the African American fighter pilot squadron known as the Tuskegee airmen who fought in World War 2. He wanted to create his own Lawrence of Arabia-esque masterpiece with a long detailed narrative, but after he was warned of the high likelihood of boring people to death, he decided to focus in on the combat portion of the greater story. Production stalled for a couple of decades while Lucas concentrated on Young Indiana Jones and then ruining everyone’s childhood with his prequel trilogy to Star Wars. The film that would eventually become Red Tails waited and waited and waited until the time came that George needed some extra cash to buy several thousand more plaid shirts. 2012 was to be the year Ol’ Georgie Boy got to fill up his closet and Red Tails finally got its cinematic release. I do quite enjoy movies set in that era, and I was very curious as to how Lucasfilm would handle not only a war story, but one based on actual events. Join me below the cut to find out what I thought.

The opening scene more or less tells you everything you need to know about the tone of the movie, and if you’re not into it, you might as well walk away now. There’s the gung-ho Star Wars-y nature of the American pilots, the Germans who are such raging stereotypes that they might as well have ‘I heart Hitler’ tattooed on their foreheads, and the exhilarating aerial combat that states real-life physics should never get in the way of a totally sick shot of a plane blowing up another plane. KA-BLOOM.

In the tradition of my favourite B-Grade movie about military airmen, Memphis Belle, Red Tails is full of guys that you think you probably know but are going to have to look up on IMDB to be sure. The cast is headed up by Cuba ‘Show Me The Money’ Gooding Jr and Terrence ‘I Would Have Been War Machine But Don Cheadle Stole a Brother’s Thunder’ Howard, with Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston dropping in for a few scenes as Super Racist Military Guy. The rest of the cast hail from 90210, Hairspray, Spooks, Friday Night Lights, The Secret Life of Bees and, er, Moesha. The inclusion of Ne-Yo and Method Man had me immediately on the back foot, but the good news is the film rises above the occasional lapses in casting judgement. Ne-Yo is terrible. So, so terrible. Luckily he’s not in it that much. The Wiki page tells me that George Lucas had been talking to Samuel Jackson about starring, and now all I can think about is how much better it would have been with him. ‘Aw HELL no, Hitler! You BEST be getting yo’ face out of a muthafuggas grill!’

While I actually really enjoyed the movie, I could still write a list as long as my arm of all the things wrong with it. It was big and brash and bold and fun, but given that it was based on a true story it did a pretty bad job of actually telling the story. I wasn’t familiar with the specific story of the Tuskegee Airmen prior to this, but I had a fair grasp of the state of race affairs around that time and the way the whole thing was portrayed was just so weird.  The movie starts in 1944 when the airmen are already deployed in Italy, and while it’s implied that there were some issues during their recruitment and training, the whole section is largely ignored.  The eventual buddy buddy turnaround of the white pilots is just so schmaltzy and barely sincere that it was a little ridiculous. George Lucas took an important story from the pages of African American history and turned it into a pew-pew romp that just featured P-51 Mustangs instead of X-Wings. If it had been a standalone completely fictional WW2 fighter pilot story I suspect it may not have been ripped into by critics as much as it has been. Though that said, he funded the entire thing out of his own pocket (all $59million of it) so he can probably do whatever the hell he wants.

For all the awkward racial content, the film is still a hell of a lot of fun and I’m not sure if it’s BECAUSE of how hilariously dumbed down some of the scenes are, or in SPITE of it. I’m not sure what I loved more, a single pilot derailing a multi-carriage munitions train with a couple of bullets, the same single pilot blowing up half a German warship just for the lols, or the two pilots who managed to wipe out half a German air base with their normal on-board guns. Oh, and did I mention that at no point do they get hit by the hundreds of Germans firing at them with massive guns? They can even fly through massive fireballs and be a-ok when they come out the other side.  Nobody told me that fighter planes in the 40s were made out of Adamantium! You GUYS! They’re also apparently capable of flying BACKWARDS when they totally want to rub their l33t skillz in the faces of the Germans. No wonder they won the war! When one of the pilots has to bail out and is captured by the enemy, he’s lucky enough to be placed in a POW camp that is more or less the same kind of setup as the one in Hogan's Heroes. Everyone gets a nice bed, nice solid wooden cabin to hang out in. The officers are nice enough to leave the prisoners to their own devices, which makes planning their daring escape that much easier. I suspect they just handed over the shovels and batteries and waved their captive buddies on their merry way. ‘Those Americans, so good with their gardening!’

'I hope they give me some of their potatoes'
Red Tails is far from groundbreaking, and is altogether a bit of a strange movie, but is a perfectly enjoyable way to kill an afternoon. Even if you don’t like it THAT much, think about how much you would have hated it if George Lucas actually got his way and made a nine hour trilogy of wacky explodey antics. Nine. Hours.  Learn to step away George. Learn to step away.

I give Red Tails 3.5 physics-defying aerial manoeuvres out of 5

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