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Review: ‘Red Tails’

‘You will love the aerial combat scenes… You may have to settle for merely 'liking' the rest of it.'

Sincerity, I think, is making a comeback. If you look at many of the more popular movie releases of the past few years – Avatar and the Twilight movies come to mind – you’ll find unabashedly romantic melodramas with nary a hint of subtlety between them. You certainly won’t find any irony. The stories are big, regardless of their budgets, and their characters are up front with their feelings even at the expense of plausible dialogue. Some of us are still too post-modern to enjoy them, and they’re not all necessarily “good,” but the more empathic among us find it hard not to get swept up in their broad strokes. Red Tails is all broad strokes, and I have to admit that it stroked me good.

But before we get too far, and before I start praising the film’s spectacular aerial dogfights and gorgeous cinematography, I have to state unequivocally that the George Lucas-produced Red Tails boasts some of the worst movie dialogue this side of the Star Wars prequels. And yes, George Lucas was involved with those too. I’m not claiming it’s a coincidence. But while the Star Wars prequels suffered from nonsensical sci-fi jargon disguised as genuine emotion and legitimate plot points, in Red Tails it almost works. The whole film is a hokey, hero-worshipping, progressive love-in, but at least it’s a fantastic one, so hearing characters belt out awkward racist pronouncements and canned World War II jargon like, “It’s the Germans! Get ‘em!” doesn’t amount to much more than sporadic turbulence.

Red Tails tells the based-on-a-true story of The Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-black fighter squadron in the United States military, who had one of the most stellar track records of any fighter pilots in World War II. They’re obviously qualified to shoot down Nazis, but at the start of the film are relegated to menial tasks like shooting down supply trains, all because of the color of their skin. As the film progresses they receive more and more glorious assignments, and they whizz about the skies in one uncannily realized action sequence after another. You will love the aerial combat scenes in Red Tails, which are filmed with a combination of flawless modern SFX, classically grand cinematography and an almost video game-like sense of immediacy. You may have to settle for merely "liking" the rest of it.

Without much of an external plotline beyond the “Us vs. Them” mentality – be it Americans vs. Nazis or the Airmen vs. Racism – Red Tails relies on its broad ensemble cast to fill out its running time. Understandably for a film about American heroes, the script by Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder and Three Kings writer John Ridley doesn’t find much fault in the Tuskegee Airmen. Their problems mostly revolve around being a hothead, or too eager to fly. Nate Parker plays Captain Martin ‘Easy’ Julian, whose biggest character flaw is an oft-seen drinking problem. Questions arise as to whether his alcoholism makes him fit to lead the squadron, but it never strikes a real cord. Everything he does is pretty awesome, regardless of the booze. Maybe going into the fray sober would have made him even more awesome, but let’s be honest, this kind of storytelling is hardly Henry V.

But that’s okay. Red Tails loves its characters, loves the majesty of aerial combat, loves the myth-building of World War II, and that love is pretty damned infectious. Even when I was laughing at the corking-bad dialogue, I was ecstatic to see such an old-fashioned thrill ride in the vein of Captain America: The First Avenger. Actually, that would make a pretty amazing double feature.