George Lucas has been talking about Red Tails for over twenty years now, so even when it hit theaters in 2012 – heck, even when it started filming – it was a shock, but one dulled by years of anticipation. Passion projects like this often come true in disappointing ways, and when it finally hit screens as directed by Anthony Hemmingway and starring Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard and a host of actors from The Wire, there was no way it could live up to the build-up. But that’s no excuse for the end results being dullish, other than some dogfighting sequences that are so rendered in CGI that they come across as weightless. The film is not a disaster, but its positive message gets lost in hackneyed clichés. Our review of the Blu-ray of Red Tails follows after the jump.
The film follows the famous Tuskegee airmen, who – when the film starts – are given assignments with little challenges, and planes that are barely held together. The fliers are Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo), Martin “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), Ray Gannon (Tristan Wilds), and Samuel “Joker” George (Elijah Kelley). All are easily reduced to archetypes. Lightning is the Han Solo-ish rogue who loves the ladies, and is always taking chances in the air, while Easy is an alcoholic battling his own demons. Their group is joined by Maurice “Bumps” Wilson (Michael B. Jordan), but few characters few defined, other than broad brush strokes. Cuba Gooding Jr. is Major Emanuel Stance, and he watches over the boys on the ground and smokes a pipe, while Terrence Howard is Col. A.J Bullard, the man fighting with the brass to get his boys some respect. They are heroes of bureaucracy, which is to say, boring.
There’s a lot of explaining at work in the first half-hour, where characters are artlessly introduced and set up. Not only do we see that Lightning is reckless, but people keep telling him that he’s reckless. Not only do we see that their missions are less promising, everyone complains about it, and it’s addressed. If the film tightened this up, there might be something there, but you get the impression that every point is made at least four or five times, and then maybe again. And again.
Eventually they do get a good mission, and they go up against the evil top dogs of the German air force, but what makes a dog fight really engaging is the weight of the crafts. And though there is practical work mixed in with the digital effects, you never get a real sense of piloting, so it all feels weak. It all feels like the prequels.
And though Anthony Hemmingway is the credited director, it’s hard not to lay a lot of the film’s problems at the feet of George Lucas – as fair or unfair as that is. It feels like a movie that older George Lucas would make. Lucas has recently re-entered the news as he’s leaving his own Lucasfilm to supposedly make his art movies. Let’s hope he actually does it because at this point, Lucas’s legacy is that of a filmmaker who was once one of the greats. And now he’s a guy who made a lot of money off of nostalgia. Part of me hopes he pulls it off, and re-emerges as a great artist. But this doesn’t give much hope.
The Blu-ray comes in Widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio. It’s a spectacular presentation, and the set also comes with a DVD copy. Extras kick off with ‘Double Victory: The Tuskegee Airmen at War’ (66 min.), which gives a history of the Tuskegee airmen, with interviews with the actual flyers and historians. It’s followed by ‘George Lucas: Exectuive Producer’ (3 min.) ‘Anthony Hemmingway: Director’ (5 min.), Terrence Blanchard: Composer’ (6 min.), ‘The Cast of Red Tails’ (25 min.) and ‘Movie Magic” (5 min.), which gets into the special effects. These are the glossy supplements that say little, but at least the documentary on the Tuskegee airmen is worth watching.