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.’