Netflix UK film review: Red Tails
James R | On 30, Oct 2014
Director: Anthony Hemingway
Cast: David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Nate Parker
Watch Red Tails online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
There’s a thin line between dumb B-movie and unbearable cheese. Red Tails, George Lucas’ attempt to tackle the true story of the Tuskegee airmen in WWII, sets that line in its sights and crashes planes on both sides. The result is a fun, awkward, entertaining, dreadful, Sunday afternoon matinee of a movie. An inspiring tale of underdogs and racism with just enough brain cells to get off the ground. The Help meets Hot Shots! Part Deux.
Joe “Lightning” Little (Oyelowo) is the best fighter pilot in the galaxy – sorry, Alabama. You can tell because he doesn’t listen to orders, makes things blow up and is frequently described by other characters as “the best God damned pilot we got”. Subtlety, thy name is not Red Tails.
The screenplay is the main culprit. Adapted by 12 Years a Slave’s John Ridley and Aaron McGruder from John B. Holway’s book, Red Tail’s story takes a formulaic feel-good arc and applies it to real life. The result is a pile of clichéd cast members, from alcoholic captain Easy (Parker) and Black Jesus-praying Deke (Marcus T. Paulk from Moesha) to dead-kid-walking Junior (Wilds).
Even worse are Terrence Howard’s earnest Colonel Bulard, fighting for recognition from the white officers in charge (“You want us to go away. We will NOT go away!”) and Cuba Gooding Jr.’s stern-faced Major Stance, whose only discerning characteristic is that he smokes a pipe.
But director Anthony Hemingway (who has previous on Battlestar Galactica) knows how to helm a dogfight. Helped by Star Wars editor Ben Burtt, the exhilarating shootouts are exactly the kind of silly spectacle you expect from a WWII romp. Even the Nazis are summed up by a single, psychotic pilot (Lars van Riesen), a cartoon nemesis with a massive scar on his face, who shouts things such as “Die, you foolish Africans!”
David Oyelowo helps too. His charismatic presence sells Lightning’s arrogant maverick; he’s funny, cocky and looks good in a uniform. After Spooks, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Last King of Scotland, it’s great to see him nail a lead role. Without him in the cast, this would be a total mess. In fact, you can almost forgive him for his laughable romantic subplot, which is more a compilation of handholding than an actual relationship.
The movie’s second half suffers from a similar problem. After a fairly tense build-up of escalating missions, Red Tail nosedives into a montage of unconnected clips. Scenes start to follow a repeated pattern: Man walks into a room. Man makes political statement. Man wins the respect of other men. It’s a well-meaning but clunky portrayal of a serious issue, which ironically feels most genuine during an unnecessary segue into a PoW camp. Hastily ripping off The Great Escape, a white soldier turns one of our pilots and thanks him for his help. “At least they won’t be able to see you in dark!” he says, smiling.
A painfully simplified version of history, then, but an unfamiliar history nonetheless. The Tuskegee Airmen have popped up in various films over the years, from an HBO production in 1995 (starring Cuba Gooding Jr. again, alongside Lawrence Fishburne) to even Night at the Museum 2, but it’s nice to see a feature-length, big screen outing for the unsung squadron – even if it does err on the obvious side.
Do the Tuskegee Airmen deserve better? Yes. But there’s a lot of fun to be had between these crayon-coloured pages of the history books.