'Red Tails' doesn't do its story justice

January 22, 2012 

Even a volleyball-playing Tom Cruise can't disprove the fact there's nothing cooler than an American fighter pilot.

Firefighters can talk all they want about how cool saving lives is, but they're not saving lives at hundreds of miles an hour. Unless some station finally invested in those catapults I've been talking about for years. If that's the case, then they might have a legitimate claim to being as cool as fighter pilots, so long as they've also added racing stripes to their uniforms.

-- Local show times, theaters, trailer.

The only other way to become cooler is to violate the laws of time and space by becoming a Mongolian warlord or a real-life version of those guys from Dino-Riders who ride T-Rexes with armor and lasers strapped to every part of their body. Those are the only two people in history and non-history who think F-15 and P-51 jockeys are a bunch of laughable wussies. There's something inherently thrilling, then, about watching fighter pilots piloting fighters. Add that to a true-life story of African-American pilots breaking down the color barrier during World War II, and you should have a free pass for a great movie.

With Red Tails, you're better off closing your eyes for two hours and imagine that great movie for yourself.

It's the middle of World War II, and despite having pilots such as steadfast captain Nate Parker and daring David Oyelowo, the all-black 332nd Fighter Group has been relegated to low-stakes operations far behind the front lines. But all that's about to change.

In the face of mounting bomber losses, the 332nd is assigned to escort duty. All eyes are on them to fail — and some of the brass might even prefer it.

Red Tails does not get off to a hot start. Despite some pretty cool shots of Nazi fighters being all "Boom boom die American bombers!" it's hard to be impressed when the dialogue of the dying bomber crews is so bad it should have been dropped on Berlin instead of bombs. Except that would have constituted a war crime, and the chief directive of all wars is to not commit any crimes.

Then, the action shifts to the ground, and things get better. Not good, but no longer one of the few things that can make a grown man cry that don't involve the death of the loyal family dog.

But every time the cast gets back in the air, the dialogue becomes so clunky it can barely be exaggerated. Maybe it's because nobody on screen is directly interacting with each other, leaving their words naked. Not good-naked, either. Parents-naked. Whatever the case, many of the lines boil down to things like "Say, these Red Tails are stopping us from getting shot to death! My racist days are over!" It's is so blunt about its characters' feelings it's more like watching a PSA than a drama.

It doesn't fare much better elsewhere. It has got a broad cast and some quality actors, but nobody has much identity besides Parker and Oyelowo, themselves hampered by the old fighter pilot cliche, which I just remembered exists, of the even-keeled commander who's constantly challenged by the hotshot who's a better pilot but a far worse leader. That dynamic is so old it was turned away from the army during World War II for being too old.

The plot, meanwhile, is bogged down by undercooked subplots about lady-killer Oyelowo finding true love and also the world's least exciting jailbreak since I let my dog out of her crate this morning. Actually, it was even less exciting than that. My dog jumps around a lot. She's pretty excited about it.

The combat scenes are entertaining enough, at least, and there are a couple moments when the Red Tails' progress feels like genuine triumph rather than empty cheerleading. Red Tails is the kind of movie where the real story is far better than the movie that attempts to celebrate it.

Grade: C

* Contact Ed Robertson at edwrobertson@gmail.com. His fiction is available on Kindle, Nook, and through Smashwords.

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