Biopic Bomb Squad

In the midst of World War II, black fighter pilots were a part of the little-respected Tuskegee Airmen. These brave pilots were forced to fly hand-me-down planes on insultingly mundane missions that at most involved destroying easy targets. With enough perseverance, they eventually succeeded in getting their first big break as the escorts on a beach assault. The catch: If they failed, their company would be shut down. Cue inspirational music, then cut to some chanting and later a bit of heroism and our underdogs come back as legends. But even when they return as successful soldiers, their superior officers only see their program as an “experiment,” and not an entirely successful one at that. 

There is a lot of story to be mined here: Heroes who give their lives for a country that doesn’t respect them, the personal and emotional issues that keep them from fulfilling their full potential, the pursuit of the American Dream that may or may not be entirely fictional. The themes of brotherhood, unity and perseverance all come up throughout the film, yet first-time director Anthony Hemingway doesn’t seem to know what to do with the material provided to him. Sometimes we cut away from a scene before the emotions can truly resonate with us. Other times we spend far too much time with characters we barely recognize. 

Most of the characters we are familiar with can be boiled down to a single identity, and then that identity can be further reduced to a few one-liners after shooting down their Nazi opponents (“Take that, Mr. Hitler!”). Only the young engineer-to-be Lieutenant Gannon (Tristan Wilds, “The Wire”) gives enthusiastic hope for the soldiers’ future, and though his devotion at times appears naïve, it also makes him more authentic than his comrades Joker (who is a joker in case this was unclear) and Ne-Yo’s cameo performance as someone named Smokey (though it’s hard to remember what exactly his character does in the film, or when he even appears). 

Academy Award winners Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard both appear as the commanding officers of the pilots, yet neither gives his role the proper amount of authority to make it believable. This would be tolerable if they instead turned in hammed-up, scenery-chewing performances à la the great Nicolas Cage that would distract from the painfully formulaic, bare-bones script. But as it is, these two are perhaps the most forgettable part of a forgettable movie.

And all of this could be forgiven if “Red Tails” had instead committed itself to being a roaring beast of an action blockbuster. And while Lucas did put an impressive 58 million dollars into the film — a mark that certainly shows in the flight sequences — it still manages to forgo any semblance of drama or thrills. Think of a Michael Bay movie minus the frantic editing, but still dull. A plane flies to the left. Another plane follows. Then that plane gets shot. Rinse and repeat, and soon the movie is over. 

But for all its yawns, it’s hard to completely hate “Red Tails.” Its subjects are truly deserving of our admiration, as they did indeed sacrifice their lives to defend a country that had little trouble forgetting about them. But as an action picture, the film misses out on the actual thrills. And, complete with a hackneyed nationalist point of view that overlooks the real issues of its characters, “Red Tails” is a disappointment not only as a blockbuster but also as an important piece of American history. (C-)