The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Red Tails

What the 54th Massachusetts was to the Civil War, the Tuskegee Airmen -- the 332nd Fighter Group -- was to World War II. It was a unit of soldiers in the Army Air Corps made up entirely of African American soldiers with segregation still alive in the armed forces. The first African American aviators in the army, the unit was forced to deal with prejudice and racism on the small scale and the large scale; rivalries from other units, doubting commanders above who questioned if they could actually handle aerial combat. It struggled in theaters, but 2012's Red Tails does a solid if unspectacular job at telling their story.

It is 1944 in Italy, and the 332nd Fighter Group, commanded by Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) and his executive officer, Major Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.), is wasting away. Headquarters refuses to give the African American fighters a chance to prove themselves, sending them on patrols over already-taken land, giving escort to planes well behind enemy lines. Finally after months of arguments over the issue, the 332nd, including squadron commander Marty 'Easy' Julian (Nate Parker) and close friend and the group's best pilot, Joe 'Lightning' Little (David Oyelowo), are given a chance. They're given little room for error though so when assigned as bomber escorts for a key mission, the 332nd knows the unit's success hinges on the mission being accomplished.

Much like 2006's Flyboys, 'Red' is a unit picture that has the tone and message more of the 1940s-1960s than a 2012-released war movie. Maybe its my cynicism at modern audiences, but stories like these just don't seem to appeal to audiences in a huge way anymore. Current war movies have to be ultra violent, realistic and offer something new. Stories that look at our armed forces in a heroic way? That premise might not fly as much. From director Anthony Hemingway, 'Red' does its best to honor the Tuskegee Airmen as best as it can. Without doing anything groundbreaking, it manages to be entertaining and exciting, going back to the well one or two times too often on war movie cliches, conventions and characters. Still, it's a solid movie.

The movie comes from George Lucas' studio -- Lucasfilms -- so that should tell you a lot about the movie. Especially the three more recent Star Wars movies, Lucas' movies seem more interested in impressing than just telling a developing story with interesting characters. In other words? A world-class script isn't essential. The background here is simple; tell the story of the Airmen as heroically as possible. The script doesn't do any favors though. The acting can be atrocious at times -- script or actors? Both? -- and the line deliveries are laughable. At one point, a white American bomber pilot actually says about the black Airmen "They're sacrificing glory to save our asses!" Subtle this is not. There's also the epically evil German pilot, played by Lars van Riesen, who ends up being the face of the German war effort. He sneers, growls, and at one point says in amazement 'Those pilots are colored!' For goodness sake, the man even has a facial scar. Could this movie be any more obvious?

Filling out the cast is a relatively unknown cast with two major stars (well, sort of) having what amounts to cameo parts. Thanks to the script, the cast never really develops 3-D, red-blooded characters. Instead, 'Tails' stays in that comfortable comfort zone of stock characters. Parker and Oyelowo are worth mentioning, rising above their familiar characters. As squadron commander, Parker's Easy struggles with command, turning to booze, while Oyelow's Lightning is a hot-shot pilot who gets a love interest, Sofia (NCIS: LA's Daniela Ruah), an Italian woman who can't speak English. Oh, awkward budding romance! The rest of the pilots are pretty bad, including Junior (Tristan Wilds), the youngster trying to prove himself, Joker (Elijah Kelley), seemingly trying to channel Chris Rock's voice and pitch, and Smokey (hip-hop artist Ne-Yo), doing his best drawling Bill Cosby impression. Howard has to deliver a few key monologues, Gooding Jr. has to smile a couple times and smoke a pipe. Andre Royo and Method Man are solid too as the 332nd's mechanical support staff.

So by this point, it sure sounds like I'm ripping the movie, but I did enjoy it enough to recommend it. Most of that positive karma comes from the aerial sequences as the 332nd tangles with German fighters over Italy and Germany. For the most part, I'm guessing much -- if not all -- of these sequences were done with computer-generated images, but you know what's good about that? I can't tell for sure. The CGI is seamless, making the aerial combat exhilarating to watch as these 1940s fighters and bombers swoop through the air with clouds of flak, shrapnel and bullets flying through the air. Clocking in at 125 minutes, 'Red' has plenty of time for these sequences, and we're the better for it. The slower, duller and cliched portions down on the ground seem a long way off when the dogfighting begins.

Mostly though, I think 'Red' tries to do too much even with a two-hour running time. Lots of characters, lots of history, and it still manages to get an unnecessary love story jammed in there, a subplot in a German prisoner of war camp, and scenes back in Washington showing the bureaucracy of running a war. With all that said, it's still an enjoyable enough movie. Probably not for everyone, but I liked it just enough to recommend it. Also worth mentioning? Check out Gooding Jr. in a made-for TV HBO movie from the late 90s about the Tuskegee Airmen.

Red Tails <---trailer (2012): ** 1/2 ****

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