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Red Tails  (2012)
Directed by Anthony Hemingway.
Cast: Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, David Oyelowo, Nate Parker, Tristan Wilds, Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelley, Marcus T. Paulk, Andre Royo, Bryan Cranston, Michael B. Jordan, Gerald McRaney, Method Man, Lee Tergesen, Matthew Leitch, Robert Kazinsky, Daniela Ruah.
2012 – 125 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 10, 2012.
If "Red Tails" is to be taken for truth—and it is based on the real-life actions of the Tuskegee Airmen's heroic, all-black 332nd Fighter Group during World War II—then the goings-on must have occurred on theme park backlots posing as 1940s Italy and its brave military men must have been rejects from the "Amos 'n' Andy" minstrel hour. Dialogue strictly hailing from a "How Not to Write a Screenplay in 30 Days" handbook is rampant with out-of-place one-liners and antiquated chestnuts (before the opening credits are over, someone has already tearfully pleaded, "Stay with me!" to an injured comrade). Characters are stereotypical "good-ol'-boy" types told apart by a single trait—i.e., the hot-tempered daredevil; the rosy-cheeked innocent; the level-headed grounding force; the guitar-strumming simpleton—while the Caucasians hanging around the periphery are portrayed wholesale as ignorant, racially intolerant clichés. There is no room for complexity of any kind in what scribes John Ridley (2002's "Undercover Brother") and Aaron McGruder have wrought, but there is a place for several performances so uncomfortable and listless it's as if amateurs off the street have abruptly been pulled into a cramped plane set and told to read off cue cards as the cameras roll. Executive producer George Lucas has allegedly been spearheading this project since 1988 so his heart must have been in the right place early on. What director Anthony Hemingway, a television vet making his inauspicious feature debut, has ended up with, however, is a smug, drippy, egotistical slice of war malarkey. If there is anything authentic about it, it's merely a fluke.

In the midst of 1944 WWII, a squadron of African-American pilots in the Tuskegee training program bide their time waiting to be called into action. "War is hell," one of them says. "What we're doing is just boring as hell." Later, he jokily ponders, "And to think I was as happy as a church lady when I got this plane." While it's not out of the ordinary for these members of the Armed Forces to attack by air a German truck or train, it isn't until Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) gives them the all-clear for duty that they're truly put to the test. With Allied troops compromised, it is time for the untested pilots of Tuskegee to show their country what they're made of.

Alternately sanitized and broadly depicted within an inch of its life, "Red Tails" is about what a person would expect from a historical presentation at Orlando's Epcot Center—only much, much worse. "My God! Those pilots are African!" exclaims bigoted blond-haired soldier Chester Barnes (Robert Kazinsky) upon seeing the 332nd take to the sky. Subtlety is not an option as the film weaves its glossy, CGI-heavy sequences of aerial action and gunfire with lugubrious downtime littered with pep talks, jingoistic moralizing, and one particular character, Andrew 'Smoky' Salem (Ne-Yo), whose crooning, simple-minded, marble-mouthed, happy-go-lucky ways would be right at home in 1946's "Song of the South." If that weren't enough, a laughably insipid romantic subplot pops up when Joe 'Lightning' Little (David Oyelowo) embarks on a relationship with Italian native Sofia (Daniela Ruah), despite an obvious language barrier. They have nothing to talk about, but by their second scene they are professing love to each other and saying, "I'm so glad I found you." In their third, Little is pressuring marriage upon her. The laughter in the theater every time these two nincompoops were on screen together was infectious.

Cuba Gooding Jr. (2007's "American Gangster") and Terrence Howard (2009's "Fighting") receive top billing as superiors Maj. Emanuelle Stance and Col. A.J. Bullard, which is to say that Gooding Jr. smokes a pipe and looks serious and Howard gives tough-love advice while furrowing his brow. They do not have people to play, but weak script constructs who occasionally speak without illuminating the viewer about who they are. As for the younger actors portraying the fighter pilots, the only ones who make a remotely positive impression are lead David Oyelowo (2011's "The Help"), as the courageous, probably ill-fated Lightning, and Tristan Wilds (2008's "The Secret Life of Bees"), a much-needed shot of charisma as Ray 'Ray Gun' Gannon.

If accuracy was what "Red Tails" was striving for, a better title might have been "The Dummies' Guide to World War II and the Tuskegee Airmen." For anyone who cares to learn about the real story without being insulted, 1995's Emmy-winning HBO film "The Tuskegee Airman" (which co-starred Cuba Gooding, Jr., coincidentally) is the one that should be sought out. By comparison or not, "Red Tails" is offensively inept and callow, unfocused in its dumbed-down narrative, pedestrian as a human interest drama, and mostly forgettable in its action battles. For a similar picture far more competently told, try 2007's underappreciated "Flyboys." "Red Tails" is off-putting for plenty of reasons, but its shameless self-satisfaction—and for no valid reason, turning a prideful part of black history into an unenlightened, frequently derogatory free-for-all—is more than enough on its own to turn stomachs.
© 2012 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman