Thursday, January 26, 2012

RED TAILS Is Pulpy, Cheesy Fun From George Lucas and Co.


- If you go in to Red Tails expecting a serious drama about the story of the fabled Tuskegee airmen, well, you'll probably be a bit disappointed. Clearly, executive producer George Lucas - who worked for decades to help get this movie made - has no real interest in serious drama. What has always interested Lucas is, of course, pulp fiction - and that's exactly what Red Tails is. Like Star Wars, Red Tails owes its storytelling lineage to old movie serials, pulp novels, and comic books.

That can be pretty jarring, to be honest. Given the fact that this is one of the first high-profile films made about the Tuskegee airmen, some might go in with certain expectations, and feel there's a responsibility on the part of Lucas and his team to give this story a certain dramatic weight and gravitas. For those people, Red Tails is going to feel off, and probably unintentionally funny at many moments. The film will, I think, feel most familiar to those who've ever perused an old war comic - Sgt. Rock, Nick Fury, or the old EC war comics from the 50's. As in those stories, the characters in Red Tails are all outlandishly nicknamed soldiers - with monikers like Lightning, Easy, Joker, and Neon - most with one or two defining personality traits. Cuba Gooding Jr.'s character is - quite cartoonishly - never without his trusty pipe. The dialogue is seemingly lifted from one of those same old comics - you'll either find it charmingly simple or just plain bad.

And I think that's true of a lot of Red Tails. The movie as a whole walks a very fine line, and sometimes its hard to tell what is intended to be intentionally pulpy and campy and what is simply poor creative decision-making. I don't know, I sense that maybe there were some conflicting voices that went into the making of this one. I mean, you can't create a tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink movie about the Tuskegee airmen ... can you? And yet, you can only hope that some parts of the film are meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Like, there's a moment towards the end of the movie, where a soldier who had been kidnapped, taken as a P.O.W. by the Germans, and then helped pull off a daring escape, returns to his army base - miraculously alive after having been presumed dead by his fellow soldiers. We never really saw *how* he got off the base, exactly, or how he made it across enemy lines to get back to his base. In fact, his storyline is given barely any screentime once he's captured. And so when he returns to base at a dramatic moment - at the exact moment that a funeral is occurring for one of his fallen squad-mates - he says something like "hey everyone, I just got back from a crazy adventure where I escaped a P.O.W. camp, and now I'm back!" You almost have to laugh at the absurdity. But was this moment even meant to be funny? There's a lot of stuff like that in Red Tails.

And yet ... Red Tails has an infectious, boyish enthusiasm that makes it hard for me to hate on it too much. The dialogue feels cheesy and like something a 12-year-old would write (think the Star Wars prequels). The editing is choppy, and has a Star Wars-esque style that's, again, likely an homage to old serials - but too often just feels inelegant. And the acting - whoah boy, there's not a note of subtlety in the film. But like I said, it's a comic book come to life - an old, 1950's-era WWII comic book. Take a look at the photo above - I really do think it's emblematic of what this movie is. And for that reason, I enjoyed it. It's simple, over-the-top storytelling that oddly suits the subject matter. It doesn't suit it if you want a mature, nuanced telling of the Tuskegee story. But it works if Red Tails is - as Lucas has said - a modern-day fable for young boys - a live-action version of those old ra-ra comic books that made kids want to march down to Berlin and sock Hitler in the jaw. This is that sort of film. And while a lot of discerning adults are going to be able to nitpick it to hell, this is clearly a movie that looks to communicate a simple, patriotic story to kids about some of World War II's overlooked heroes. Suffice it to say, if you took this movie and made it animated, it probably would lose nothing in translation.

What Red Tails has though are plenty of big, bombastic moments that are undoubtedly crowd-pleasers. The Nazis in this film are sheer evil and utter supervillain-esque exclamations of doom. The heroes have their flaws (too much drinking, too much womanizing), but are all ultimately fun to root for as they zoom around performing death-defying aerial feats and saying things like "take that, Mistuh Hitluh!" In one of the movie's most laugh-getting gags, one of the Tuskegee pilots continually directs his prayers to Black Jesus in the midst of battle. Lots of cheese, but a lot of it is in good fun.

The acting is similarly campy, but I was impressed by the charisma and screen presence of a lot of the actors here. My favorite was Terrence Howard as Colonel A.J. Bullard. Howard is an awesome actor, but here he chews up every scene and hams things up to perfection. It's just a fun performance. I'm not sure if I feel the same about Cuba Gooding Jr. - he just looks sort of ridiculous with a Sherlock Holmes-esque pipe jutting out of his mouth - and he's still got that boyish face that makes it hard for him to pull off the part of a grizzled army major. The real star here though is David Oyelowo as Joe "Lightning" Little. Oyelowo is fed some of the lamest dialogue in the history of cinema. His romantic subplot, in which he magically falls in love with an Italian woman who doesn't speak English - is one of *the* stupidest romance subplots that I've ever seen in a major movie. And yet, Oyelowo is a scene stealer, and he makes a lot of the movie's lamer moments somehow watchable due to sheer charisma and force of will. Similarly good is Nate Parker as Martin "Easy" Julian (a reference to Sgt. Rock's Easy Co.?). Parker helps make squad leader Easy into a fun character, even though his battle with the bottle is seemingly lifted from a "The More You Know" segment on old Saturday Morning TV.

Red Tails also gets a little lift from two small but effective performances from awesome actors. For one, the great Bryan Cranston shows up as an army official whose racism causes him to underestimate the Tuskegee airmen. Meanwhile, Gerald McRaney (from Deadwood and many other things), is great as an army major sympathetic to the cause and a proponent of the Tuskegee soldiers.

It's certainly worth noting that Red Tails is directed by Anthony Hemingway and written by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder (after many, many years in development with various writers). But it's also inevitable that the name George Lucas gets thrown around a lot, because the movie feels so much like a Lucas film. There's a bright, digital sheen over the whole movie that makes it feel very Lucas-y, and everything from the campiness to the stilted dialogue to the editing style feels like the work of the Jedi Master.

It's good and bad. There are some really great scenes in the film - some fantastic, visceral action, and a handful of surprisingly poignant moments that show the sort of racism that the Tuskegee airmen had to battle in addition to the Nazis. There are some big action beats that really work well and get the heart racing. There are moments here that just flat-out pump you up, and make you proud to be an American. I mean, I'll admit it - as I watched this movie in a packed theater, surrounded by a multiracial audience of all ages and creeds, I couldn't help but look around as I watched the movie and think "man, this is sort of awesome - only in America!" It was easy to get caught up in the audience's feeling of pride for this story, for these Tuskegee airmen and the pivotal role they played in America's WWII victory. It was easy to forget about the movie's flaws and just enjoy the fact that here was a great American story, up on the big screen, being presented with all the flair and good vs. evil melodrama of Star Wars. At the same time, there were moments of the film that were so eye-rollingly lame that they just broke the suspension of disbelief and took me out of the movie completely. Even if the film is going for a campy, pulpy vibe, that's still a huge knock against it.

Red Tails isn't really a good movie in any conventional sense. But it's fun, and uplifting, and spectacularly cheesy in a way that just might appeal to your inner ten-year-old - the kid who still believed that America was the greatest country on by-god earth and that anything was possible. If you have it in you to appreciate a movie on that level - if the picture at the top of this post gets your adrenaline pumping - then by all means, go check out Red Tails.

My Grade: B

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