Sunday, January 29, 2012

Red Tails, A Tale Better Forgotten

I’m a sucker for war movies, and World War II movies in particular, so I had high expectations (uh oh, that’s setup for a major letdown) for ‘Red Tails,’ George Lucas’s tribute to the daring African-American fighter pilots famously known as the Tuskegee Airmen.  Like the equally famous  but less glamorous ‘Red Ball Express,’ the contributions of African-Americans to the war effort against the scourge of Nazism cannot be understated any more than their struggles against racism in the country they served be easily forgotten.
‘Red Tails’ (so named for the color painted on the tails of their P-51 Mustang fighter planes) skimps on story and character development in favor of action, and I typically have no problem with that.  Modern CGI allowed the movie to stage great (and exciting) aerial combat scenes, yet it still somehow managed to be dull and lackluster, and here’s why.  ‘Red Tails’ falls into the trap of what I call the ‘history is written by the victors’ (or ‘us versus them’) syndrome, in which the enemy (‘them’) are all too easily disposed of and they always underestimate the good guys (‘us’) to their own detriment.  In the movie’s final air combat scene, which illustrates the most egregious example of this transgression, the Tuskegee airmen’s P-51 Mustangs achieved something like a 5-1 kill ratio against German Messerschmitt ME 262’s.  So what’s wrong with that, you ask?  The ME 262 was the first operational jet fighter and totally outclassed the turboprop-driven P-51 in every way; any WWII history buff can tell you that the Allies couldn’t even achieve parity (1:1 ratio) against it, much less a 5:1 ratio.  By then it was ‘too little too late’ for the Germans, thank God, but to stage an air combat scene like that totally beggars belief. 
WWII-nerdism aside, ‘Red Tails’ is also as formulaic as a war movie can get.  The stereotypes are all there.  An impulsive, hotshot pilot who thinks he's (and in most cases is) invincible, check.  The squadron commander who's secretly jealous of him and drinks excessively because he’s wracked with self-doubt (called wrestling with your ‘inner demons’), check.  The likable and somewhat superstitious ‘mascot’ whom everyone loves but just isn’t good enough, check.  The pipe-smoking Operations officer who acts as a kindly ‘father figure’ to his boys, check.  And so on.  Oh, of course, lest we forget the obligatory contrived romance between one of the pilots (the hotshot in this case) and a pretty local girl which invariably ends in tragedy.  This romantic subplot has been a staple in war movies and has NEVER been convincing, so why do film makers insist on keeping this tradition alive?  Surely it’s not to draw women into watching war movies?  Get a clue Hollywood, they don’t!
‘Red Tails’ is just the latest forgettable WWII entry in the heap of failed WWII movies since Spielberg’s seminal masterpiece ‘Saving Private Ryan.’  The legacy of these brave Tuskegee airmen deserved better.
3 out of 10
Up next, ‘Coriolanus.’


Monday, January 23, 2012

Going 'Haywire'

Steven Soderbergh has been a busy man lately.  After killing off Gwyneth Paltrow in gruesome fashion and playing on some of our worst primal fears last year in his 'Andromeda Strain'-esque virus outbreak movie 'Contagion,' the acclaimed director (best known for his Academy Award winning films 'Traffic' and 'Erin Brockovich') indulged in a bit of fun in his latest spy-versus-spy movie 'Haywire' starring MMA/Muay Thai champion and former American Gladiator Gina Carano.  Just as its namesake suggests, 'Haywire' is fast, furious, blink-and-you-miss chaotic and, well, totally kick-ass.  There's just no other way to put it.  It is said that you can recognize a Soderbergh movie when you see one; after all, most of his films have a certain spare, docudrama style, and this one's no different. The story treads familiar territory, about a female 'operator' who got 'burned' by her superiors in the cloak-and-dagger business. The similiarity ends here though, as this is much better than the Angelina Jolie-starred 'Salt,' which was by no means a bad movie.  'Haywire' is a gritty, no-holds-barred action/suspense thriller that grabs you and won't let go like one of Gina Carano's trademark choke-holds. And Gina, oh Gina, NEVER have I seen such believable lethality in such a beautiful package! The writers didn't give her much to say in this movie, for better or worse, but Mallory Kane's quiet, understated demeanor and Tony Jaa-inspired Muay Thai fly kicks speak much louder than words, thank you very much.  I mean, come on, John Rambo didn't have much to say either in four movies, did he?

Like many of Soderbergh's films, 'Haywire' boasts an admirable ensemble cast, including Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Bill Paxton and the rising Michael Fassbender.  While 'Haywire' does give the vibes of a 'B' movie in its minimalist approach, that's not necessarily a bad thing. This is what a Jason Bourne movie would be like if Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez had the director's chair and bull-horn.  And well, that last line uttered by Rodrigo (played by Antonio Banderas) at the end of the movie is simply priceless.

8 out of 10