If George Lucas’ promise early in 2012 holds true, the World War II action movie Red Tails represents his final foray into big budget filmmaking. That’s a particularly bittersweet milestone for anyone who grew up loving Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Lucas produced Red Tails and, judging by the bonus material on the Blu-ray, was quite a hands-on presence throughout the making of the film. Though the Tuskegee Airmen–a group of heroic African American fighter pilots in the United States Army Air Forces–have been the subject of a film already (the 1995 HBO film The Tuskegee Airmen), Lucas had wanted to make this movie long before that earlier production existed.
Loosely based on the actual Tuskegee Airman, Red Tails tells the story of the 332nd Fighter Group. All African-American, the 332nd was stationed in Italy and flew missions to blow up ground vehicles rather than engage in air combat. Racism was rampant and it was widely thought at the time that African Americans couldn’t handle military combat. Their planes are badly outdated at the beginning of the film, often in need of repair. Things change after the Airmen get the chance to support allied troops as they land on the beach at Anzio. Their effective work puts them on the map finally, and they begin flying successful missions as bomber escorts.
The ensemble cast of characters includes Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo) as a risk-taking, hotshot pilot, Martin “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) as an alcoholic pilot, and Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds) as an over-eager rookie pilot. All of these, as well as more minor characters, have basically a single trait assigned to each of them. Their superiors are played by actors who bring a little more star power to the proceedings, Cuba Gooding Jr. as Major Emanuel Stance and Terrence Howard as Colonel A.J. Bullard. Howard gets some choice scenes as he encourages his men in an authoritative fashion. Gooding doesn’t seem to do much more than smoke his pipe and squint.
The real stars of Red Tails aren’t really the actors (which all handle their parts capably), but the special effects team. When the Airmen start flying missions, the film becomes thrilling. These scenes are excitingly staged, with effects that are so seamless, we mostly forget we’re watching digital animation. The Airmen are eventually upgraded from their rickety Curtiss P-40 Warhawks to state-of-the-art North American Aviation P-51 Mustangs. These are the aircraft whose tails are painted red. Whenever they engage the German fighters, the movie truly takes flight.
Red Tails was not particularly well-received, either critically or commercially. I don’t know that the poor reception was entirely deserved. The script, by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder (creator of the comic strip The Boondocks), thuds along with dialogue that seems aimed at juveniles. The relationships between the Airmen don’t feel mature. Their verbal exchanges, even during the movie’s weightiest situations, really fall flat. Director Anthony Hemingway, making his feature film debut after many television credits, does a great job of keeping the action moving. It’s hard to assign him any of the blame for the film’s somewhat empty core. Weak writing is the culprit.
Red Tails looks utterly stunning on Blu-ray. The image, framed at 2.40:1, is clean and sharp. The movie was shot digitally, but it still has a reasonably film-like look that keeps it from feeling too “modern” for a World War II picture. Clarity is never an issue, with extraordinary detail during all scenes, regardless of lighting circumstances. The colors are rich and realistic. Whatever one might say about the movie itself, this visual presentation is nearly impossible to fault.