Sunday, January 22, 2012


Anybody who has seen enough World War II movies knows that Hollywood has to resort to elaborate artifice to conjure up equipment which no longer exists in vast quantities. Each year attrition depletes the number of Allied planes, tanks, and war ships used in combat. Worse, most of the Axis equipment has been destroyed. The Spanish Air Force furnished the filmmakers of “Battle of Britain” (1969) with scores of vintage Nazi-era aircraft. Most moviemakers aren’t that fortunate. Now, every time that you see a World War II relic fly, you wonder if they haven’t matted in additional models, or relied entirely on miniatures. Virtually no World War II movie since the 1950s has used a Sherman tank. They rely on either the Pentagon for Cold War era equipment or mock up something that resembles a Sherman.

Freshman director Anthony Hemingway’s aerial epic “Red Tails” (** out of ****) qualifies more as a showcase for the digital computer generated imagery which can forge greater authenticity than a salute to the famous Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group. This is the kind of movie that gives history a bad name. Clocking in at a torturous 125 minutes, “Red Tails” shows flair when it’s in the air but crashes and burns on the ground. The biggest stars in its gallery—Terence Howard and Cuba Gooding, Jr.,--ride desks, while a flock of relative newcomers wing it. Of course, any movie that involves historical racism in our enlightened era has to fly in circles. For the record, “Three Kings” scenarist John Ridley and “The Boondocks” scribe Aaron McGruder deploy the dreaded N-word once and then fall back on clich├ęs as creaky as a period World War II combat actioneer. Worse, they make the Tuskegee Airmen behave like stock characters. Occasionally, Hemingway and his writers go off on tangents which weren’t necessary, such as a “Great Escape” subplot. Indeed, most of what happens here is a predictable as any second-rate war film. Essentially, “Red Tails” is “Gettysburg” with wings. Nevertheless, whenever they show the aircraft and the settings, you have to admire the extraordinary CGI that producer George Lucas’ special effects outfit, Industrial Light and Magic, has wrought. Now, if they’d only made the melodrama look as genuine as the aircraft and other equipment. Mind you, the train that gets blown up looks terrific!

“Red Tails” opens in Italy in 1944 as the black aviators, who prefer to be called ‘Negros’ rather than ‘coloreds,’ are flying antiquated P-40 Tomahawks on behind the lines missions. The Pentagon doesn’t believe that African-Americans are courageous enough for the task at hand. In fact, the film quotes a racist excerpt from 1925 Army War College study that said blacks were not brainy enough, ambitious enough, or audacious enough to survive in combat. Consequently, our heroes fly custodial missions, literally mopping up what the Army has bypassed on the way to the front. If these guys are lucky, they get to shoot up a Nazi truck, and these fellows are itching to see some real action. Indeed, one of the pilots, reckless Lieutenant Joe 'Lightning' Little (David Oyelowo of “The Help”), disobeys his squadron leader, Captain Marty 'Easy' Julian (Nate Parker of “Pride”), when they strafe a Nazi transport train. Everybody else swoops in from the rear and riddles the train while the Germans gunners unleash a barrage of flak. Miraculously, nobody is wounded. Lightning decides to attack the train from the front, however, before it can enter the safety of a tunnel, and he blasts it to hell and gone. Watching the locomotive and freight cars buckle and explode makes you think that “Red Tails” is going to be a fiery ride.

Unfortunately, nothing really happens until the second hour when the Tuskegee Airmen join the fighting over Northern Europe. Interestingly enough, it seems that the white American fighter pilots who fly escort for the B-17 bombers on raids have a tendency to abandon them when they spot German fighters. What the American fighter pilots fail to recognize is the wily Germans are luring them off when the bulk of their fighters shoot the bombers to ribbons. USAAF Major General Luntz (Gerald McRaney of CBS-TV’s “Simon & Simon”) asks Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terence Howard of “Iron Man”) about using his men to fly escort. Primarily, Luntz wants them to protect his heavy bombers rather than leave them in an aerial lurch. When Luntz promises that he will put the Tuskegee Airmen into brand, spanking-new P-51 Mustangs, Bullard takes him up on it. Initially, the white American bomber pilots don’t have much faith when they see their first black pilot fly alongside them. Things change drastically when the Tuskegee guys stick to them and thwart the Germans.

Sadly, “Red Tails” seems designed for kids rather than armchair historians who have cut their teeth on History Channel documentaries. The subplots about an African-American pilot who wines and dines an Italian babe, while another struggles with his alcoholism are the embarrassing fluff of a soap opera. Mind you, these are dullest bunch of guys in uniform that you’ve ever seen. Not one single character stands out, and the Tuskegee Airmen were pretty outstanding individuals. Despite its glossy $58 million budget, “Red Tails” doesn’t muster the dramatic clout of the Golden Globe-nominated HBO made-for-cable movie “The Tuskegee Airman” (1995) with Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding, Jr. Moreover, Terence Blanchard’s orchestral theme music keeps everything in snooze control for the duration. Not only the Tuskegee Airmen but also the audiences deserve best than “Red Tails” delivers.