Part of the job, when reviewing movies, is to go in with an open mind.
I do my best. But this is a film I had decided to like as soon as I knew it was greenlit. It may have been released in the US in January but UK cinemagoers have to wait until early June to see this movie. I don’t know about you but for me the anticipation was almost unendurable.
Which is why it is so hard for me now to admit that Red Tails is something of a lemon.
I was a World War Two combat aircraft nerd before I was a Batman nerd. And I’ve been a Batman nerd for close-on half a century.
Let’s ignore for a second the unbelievable engineering that went into building those spectacular flying machines less than 40 years after the Wright brothers made their short trip at Kittyhawk. Let’s just think about the staggering courage of those young men who climbed into metal tubes packed with fuel and explosives and flew them over hostile territory where other young men were busy filling the sky with exploding hot metal.
And that’s before we focus on the specific achievements of the ‘Tuskeegee airmen’ of the US 332nd Fighter Group who were not only combatting Nazism (which I think we all agree was pretty bad) in the skies but racism (which isn’t a whole lot better) on the ground.
There’s a great story to be told about these admirable men, but this isn’t it.
The problem lies mainly in the dialogue, credited to John Ridley and Aaron McGruder (writer of The Boondocks). It’s just about adequate when the all-black fighter squadron are talking among themselves. Whenever the (exclusively white) bomber pilots speak though it devolves into clunking great chunks of awkward exposition that make George Lucas’s notoriously wooden scripting for the Star Wars prequels sound like Bringing Up Baby.
Maybe white characters deserve to be the lowly plot mechanics for a change. God knows we’ve seen enough movies over the years where the black character exists seemingly just to catch a bullet. But where this inspiring story should soar like a Spitfire the dialogue makes it bump along the ground like a Boulton Paul Defiant with a broken tailwheel.
On the upside. the air combat scenes are beautiful. The (presumably CGI rendered) P-51 Mustangs twist and turn with exquisite choreography as they duel with the German ME-109s. When the pioneering ME-262 jet fighters make their (I think) movie début later they look breathtakingly cool. I would have liked to have seen a few FW 190s in action too but you can’t have everything.
There’s a token love story subplot but essentially the film is all about how those indomitable American patriots fought to get themselves into the skies over Germany and how they fought and died for their country and for their comrades once they got there.
The core cast are solid. Cuba Gooding Jnr and Terrence Howard are the notional stars but I’d be happy to have seen a lot more of Tristan Wilds as Ray ‘Ray Gun’ Gannon. British actor David Oyelowo gets the coolest callsign and fanciest dogfight moves as Joe ‘Lightning’ Little. The villainous German fighter ace and the hidebound US military brass are little more then ciphers.
If you enjoyed a lot of Commando Picture Library comics where fighter pilots overcame impossible odds and godawful writing to triumph over the beastly Hun this is your film.
For me, although it’s hardly a crash and burn, it’s a woefully missed opportunity.