Legend has it that for early test screenings of the first Star Wars movie, George Lucas substituted footage of World War II aerial dogfights in place of the not-yet-completed sequences pitting the Rebel Alliance's X-Wings against the Empire's fleet of TIE fighters. Now, three decades later, Lucas has made a full-fledged World War II movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, the celebrated squadron of African-American fighter pilots who defied the prejudice of the times and flew a number of crucial missions in the European theater of the war.
Red Tails is a passion project for Lucas, who has been trying to (pardon the pun) get it off the ground for over twenty years. Fed up with attempting to convince a studio to fund it, he finally went ahead and bankrolled it himself, to the tune of some $60 million. And while he isn't the director of the film -- that would be Anthony Hemingway, making his feature debut after a career mostly spent in television -- Lucas reportedly oversaw extensive reshoots and his particular brand of almost juvenile earnestness is certainly felt in the movie's tone and heard in its dialogue. (John Ridley and Aaron McGruder -- yes, the The Boondocks's Aaron McGruder -- co-wrote the script, but again, rumor has it that Lucas made his own contributions and there are certainly a number of scenes that feature the same tin-eared line readings that marred the Star Wars prequels.) Calling Red Tails corny would be an insult to the corn industry -- it's positively dripping with sweet sincerity and unapologetic sentimentality. If one of your New Year's resolutions was to be less cynical, this film will likely cause you to abandon that pledge only three weeks in to 2012.
Lucas has said that he primarily made the movie to teach younger audiences about the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen (thus employing the same "it's for kids" defense he used for the prequels) and the movie really does feel like a YA historical novel or a lost episode from his similarly kid-friendly TV show The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. On that early '90s series, the future Dr. Jones encountered some famous early 20th century historical figure week in and week out (among them, T.E. Lawrence, Al Capone and Carl Jung) and had a rip-roaring adventure. Fortunately, Lucas resisted the urge to tell the story from a white character's perspective, instead putting the Tuskegee flyers front and center. While Red Tails is very much an ensemble piece, there are two characters that serve as our primary gateway into the world of the film: stern squad leader "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker) and daring flyboy "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo). Best friends on the ground and prickly comrades-in-arms while in the sky, Easy and Lightning take drastically different approaches to the racial prejudice they face from the army at large. The reserved squad leader would rather prove his worthiness in battle, while the forceful pilot is willing to literally fight white soldiers for respect. Lightning's a lover in addition to being a fighter, embarking on a chaste romance with an Italian girl (Daniela Ruah). It's here that Lucas's influence is really felt, as their love story has all the passion and stiff emoting that made the Anakin/Padme relationship in Attack of the Clones so memorable... and not in a good way.
The rest of the film's cast of stock characters includes Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Colonel Bullard and Major Stance respectively, Friday Night Lights's Michael B. Jordan as green recruit Maurice, Marcus T. Paulk as the resident religious man, Deke and Tristan Wilds as the young grunt Junior, who gets shot down while on a mission and ends up in a POW camp. (Kudos to whichever brilliant casting agent tapped The Wire's Method "Cheese" Man and Andre "Bubbles" Royo to be members of the squad's ground crew. I would have watched an entire movie about them fixing planes and talking about getting back to B'more after the war ends.) None of these folks prove all that interesting and the movie seems to recognize that, speeding through the sequences on the ground as quickly as possible in an effort to get back to the dogfights up in the air. For the most part, the CGI-intensive aerial battles are well staged, if a little too polished and organized compared to the real thing. Lucas also takes a page out of Star Wars by giving his heroes a Darth Vader-like nemesis to face off against in each mission: a particularly nasty Nazi nicknamed Pretty Boy (Lars van Riesen). In other words, those hoping for Saving Private Ryan-style realism should probably look elsewhere. Unlike his pal and frequent collaborator, Steven Spielberg, Lucas isn't interested in capturing the brutality of war, instead presenting an old-fashioned, rah-rah-rah celebration of heroism on the battlefield. The Tuskegee Airmen have certainly earned that kind of starry-eyed tribute, but a better film (and filmmaker) would have at least tried to dig a little deeper.
Check out >ten similarities between Red Tails and Star Wars.
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