This review contains spoilers
I remember seeing movie trailers for Red Tails when it was released in 2012. It looked like a somewhat interesting film, but I never got around to seeing it either in the theater or afterward on home video. When I saw it on one of the several streaming services we now subscribe to (Disney plus, I think?), I decided to see what it was I’d missed out on. Turns out, it wasn’t a whole lot.
As the film opens, a WWII air battle is in progress. In an unusual choice for modern films, opening credits are presented intermittently over the action. I was surprised to see many familiar names flash across the screen. Cuba Gooding Jr, Tarrance Howard, Michael B Jordan, and produced by George Lucas. Why hadn’t I heard more about this film? The answer to that question soon becomes apparent. As the battle scene progresses, we’re treated to such riveting exposition as “Where are the damn fighters going?” and “Hundreds of them! Six o’Clock!” and “It never fails.” delivered in such unconvincing tones that I couldn’t help but chuckle at the unintentional comedy. Luckily, not all of the dialog is so bad. As the film shifts to our main characters, the Tuskegee Airmen, things start to feel a lot more natural.
The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of African American fighter pilots in World War II. The premise of the film holds endless promise, as the pilots long to prove themselves as equals to their white counterparts even while those in the higher ranks of the US military are reluctant to trust the intricacies of bomber escort duty to troops of color. Tarrance Howard turns in the most impressive performance as Col AJ Bullard, constantly fighting to get the Red Tails assigned to higher profile missions. His steely-eyed challenges of those who would prefer to keep the Tuskegee men on mop-up duty is one of the highlights of the film.
On a micro level, the film focuses on best friends and bunkmates Capt Martin “Easy” Julian and 1st Lt Joe “Lightning” Little. Easy is the flight lead who tries to execute all maneuvers “by the book” and Lightning is the incredibly talented loose cannon who routinely takes unnecessary risks but gets away with it because of his unbelievable piloting abilities. Besides this conflict, each of the pilots has a vice. For Lightning, it’s beautiful women. For Easy, it’s alcohol. The Tuskegee airmen battle both personal demons and racial inequality.
Within this framework lies the bones of a fairly good film, both at an individual level and on a larger scale. Unfortunately, this framework is layered with so much fat and nonsense that the viewer can barely make sense of it all by the end of the arduous 121 minutes of run time.
Let’s start with the main antagonist. Wait, this is Europe in WWII, isn’t the main antagonist just “Germany”? You would think so. But for some reason, the writers saw fit to personify the German fighter pilots into a single character they refer to as “Pretty Boy”, the German squadron leader who is inexplicably easily identified when he switches from a propeller fighter to a completely different jet fighter at the end of the film. Pretty Boy only speaks German and is never subtitled but from the ugly scar on his face and the ominous music that plays during his sequences, we can deduce that he’s pure evil. What are his motivations? Where does he come from? Why does he constantly scowl? We may never know. He’s a shallow, unnecessary villain who we’re expected to assume is evil simply because he’s on the other side.
Speaking of unnecessary characters, we’re presented with no fewer than fourteen Tuskegee airmen and crew members. Fourteen. And that’s just the Tuskegee men. What results is a jumbled mess of nicknames and masked pilots who are difficult to identify, let alone identify with. At one point in the film, a long, drawn-out scene involves Easy trying to escort an injured “Deacon” Watkins back to the airstrip before the latter passes out from his in-flight injuries. It’s easily the tensest scene in the film, but when Deacon eventually crashes and bursts into flames on the side of the runway, I found myself thinking “who was Deacon, again? Have we been introduced to this character before? Did he have a special relationship with any of the other pilots that I’ve forgotten about?” because all of the lesser characters kind of blended together. It’s not just Deacon, either. In the climactic final battle scene, Michael B Jordan’s Maurice Wilson is unceremoniously shot down for no other reason than to give one of the pilots a reason to shout “This is for Maurice!” as he attacks a random German aircraft. If I could sum up the Tuskegee airmen characters in this film succinctly, I would say they are an overwhelming number of characters doing a lot of pointless things.
The pointless characters aren’t limited to the Tuskegee men. An entire subplot involves Lightning falling instantly in love with and pursuing an Italian maiden (Sofia) who he spots from the cockpit of his airplane. This relationship does provide one humorous scene involving the maiden’s mother during the two characters’ first in-person meeting, but it’s largely unnecessary to the greater plot. The producer could have saved us fifteen minutes by cutting Sofia out of the script. Another, shorter sub-plot has “Ray Gun” Gannon being captured and placed into a German POW camp where he is thrown into a Hogan’s Heroes-esque escape plot that actually succeeds. Luckily, this sub-plot is much shorter than the Sofia arc, but it contributes just as little to moving the film forward and even feels somewhat rushed and out-of-place.
Lastly, I’ll pick on the vices. As mentioned previously, our two main characters each have a major weakness. Lightning likes the women and Easy is constantly taking swigs from hidden bottles of alcohol to cope with the stress of being in charge of the squadron. The film beats us over the head with these character flaws very early on, and they are a constant source of tension between the two best friends. The problem is, neither of these vices ever actually comes into play as a major plot device. Lightning never misses a mission because of a late-night rendevous and Easy never makes a bad decision due to being impaired by the bottle. It’s a lot of buildup for nothing. Perhaps the producers were being careful not to stereotype African Americans as drunk womanizers, but if that was the case, why even introduce the vices in the first place? Why not let the source of tension flow from the fact that one of the characters is straight-laced while the other was a free-wheeler?
Not everything about the film was bad. By and large, the acting and dialog within the Tuskegee group is very good. I’ve already rightfully praised Tarrance Howard. Nate Parker (Easy) is quite watchable and David Oyelowo (Lightning) is downright charismatic. A subdued Cuba Gooding Jr. walks a fine line between wanting the troops to have a chance to prove themselves and making sure they understand how far they’ve come. Brian Cranston is excellent as the hated Colonel Mortamus, who openly derides black pilots as being inferior to other races. If anything makes you pull for the Tuskegee men, it’s the despicable attitudes held by Mortamus, not the cartoonish evil of the German “Pretty Boy”.
Even so, it’s a difficult two-hour watch. It’s frustrating to see the potential of the story wasted by such a fragmented, confusing execution. I’ve read that a film from 1995 on the same subject called The Tuskegee Airmen (also with Cuba Gooding Jr!) is a much better movie. I’m hoping to be able to give that one a watch at some point to see if that is indeed the case. As it stands, I can’t recommend Red Tails, unfortunately.