George Lucas brings his WWII epic to the screens
READ - our interview with director Anthony Hemingway!
In World War II, a segregated black section of the United States Air Force battles generations of prejudice to prove themselves in the air against the Axis forces.Red Tails is a project that has been percolating in the brain of filmmaker George Lucas since the late 80s, with the Star Wars creator facing an uphill struggle in his search for financing. Eventually he decided to absorb the entire $90 million budget (production plus marketing) himself to get it into theatres.
It’s certainly an inspiring and little known passage in world history and Lucas should be commended for bringing it to the screen, with some sterling ILM work bringing the dog fights to life. The battles are gloriously presented, with cameras zooming through virtual space while cutting edge effects give you a real sense of speed and danger as the airmen zip through the air, dodging bullets and exploding into some very attractive fireballs. It’s thrilling stuff, with the near photo-real detail an indication of how far CG effects have come in recent years.
Sadly, Red Tails threatens to stall whenever it’s grounded. The trouble starts with the script from TV writers John Ridley and Aaron McGruder who seem intent on populating their film with one dimensional stereotypes and some of the clunkiest dialogue you’ll hear outside of a Star Wars prequel. Their flabby story includes far too many tertiary plot-lines, like an ill-advised romance, that do nothing but extend the running time to a brain taxing length. And while some of the lines are no doubt attempting to reflect the offhand prejudice of a mere seventy years ago, they often come off as broad or openly hilarious. My favourite occurs during a night-time escape when a white officer casually remarks to a black colleague – ‘at least they won’t see you in the dark!’
Given his egregious past, I suspect many of the films problems may stem from Lucas himself. Everything from the lurid, paint splashed title font to the 80s action movie soundtrack and garish characterisation points once again to his love of early 20th century movie serials by way of Saturday morning cartoons. Lucas doesn’t trust his audience enough to let them read the film alone, cueing their emotions with heavy musical signposting and filling every corner of the film with easily recognisable types.
This tone and style would be perfectly fine if Red Tails was in fact a kids film or another interlude in Lucas’ interminable interstellar saga but it desperately wants to be a film with a message, an expose of the racial injustice of the not so distant past. But every dud line, despicably evil white character and poorly drawn black placeholder serve to neuter the message of the film, making you long for the next series of explosions.
It’s a shame because, beyond the terrible dialogue and under developed narrative, there are some solid performers trying to break through. Cuba Gooding Jr and Terrence Howard are fine but its young Brit David Oyelowo who gets closest to actually carving an identity for ace pilot Lightning. He’s the reckless one, in case you were wondering. And first time feature director Anthony Hemingway (who cut his teeth on some sterling HBO shows, with some familiar faces following him here) does what he can to frame the not-so stirring speeches and random plotlines.Red Tails feels weighed down by the leaden sensibilities of show runner Lucas but the aerial fights are ace and a there’s constant feeling of a much better film straining to break free.