I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Red Tails

tn_redtailsI’m starting to feel like a pushover, ’cause I’m enjoying all these poorly reviewed movies. RED TAILS is a simple pleasure – a straightforward, old-fashioned tribute to the camaraderie between the pilots and crew members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American Air Force squadron. It centers on the friendship between straight-laced, mustache-having but sometimes flask-swigging Easy (Nate Parker) and reckless, authority-bucking wannabe-ace Lightning (David Oyelowo). Easy (unlike his grandson Easy E) always wants to be professional and follow protocol, Lightning likes to disobey orders to go play chicken with a German ammunitaion train or carelessly dive on a battleship with no backup.

Back at the base everybody flips out for films of Lightning’s insane combat antics, but Easy is confident in his philosophy of choosing the right battles. He thinks Lightning is stupid to get in a bar brawl with some white soldiers who called him the n-word (the actual word, not the euphemism, which didn’t exist back then) because he risks losing his right to fight the bigger wars of defeating Hitler and demonstrating his talents so those dumb motherfuckers will have to eat their ignorant words. But maybe Lightning would take Easy’s opinion more seriously if he didn’t smell whiskey on his breath.

mp_redtailsAbove the pilots is Major Cuba Gooding, Jr., above him is Colonel Terrence Howard, above both are a bunch of white people like Gerald McRainey and Bryan Cranston (reprising his JOHN CARTER role as Authority Figure Who Shows Up To Be An Asshole For a Scene At the Beginning). Howard has to convince those ofays just to give his men some worthwhile missions, which they feel they’re not ready for on account of they have not had any experience having worthwhile missions. Plus they’re flying busted ass hand-me-down planes. People were so racist back then they apparently even had a stereotype that black men can’t fly planes. What the hell? Racists are so random. The Airmen in the movie win over the white bomber pilots by guarding their asses on a raid and staying on their tails instead of being suckered into chasing after German decoys. (Point goes to Easy.)

I don’t know what the hell happened, but I watched Gooding in a couple DTV movies and now all the sudden I kind of like him. Here he seems like he’s channeling Denzel’s expressions a little bit. He was in the HBO film THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN but in this one he smokes a pipe, so it’s really different. The one criticism I have of his performance is that the pipe smoking seems self conscious at times. But maybe the character just loves smoking pipes. He and Howard get to make a couple inspirational speeches each, so they are the elder statesmen of the cast.

Method Man has a very small part where I believe he’s the first one to say the title. He’s credited as Cliff Smith, which is funny because the singer Ne-Yo is just credited as Ne-Yo. Somebody needs to teach him that if you have one of the stupidest stage names of any successful performer in the last 30 years (in my opinion it tops Flo-Rida, Chamillionaire and Rappin’ 4-Tay) then you can just go by something else for your acting credits. Buddy, you’re really so embarrassed by the name “Shaffer Chimere Smith, Jr.” that you think “it’s like Neo from THE MATRIX, only with ‘yo’ in it!” is better? Well, you’re wrong.

The character drama plays out within an unprecedented re-creation of WWII and its aerial battles, courtesy of ILM and producer George Yes ,That George Lucas, who put up millions of his own cash to finance the movie after trying to get it off the ground for 20 years. (get it, off the ground, like a plane.) The charisma and easy-going chemistry of the cast makes me think credited director Anthony Hamilton (a TV director who did a couple episodes of a show called The Wire) was really in charge and not just a figurehead. Lucas allegedly directed a bunch of reshoots to add more humor (he had Boondocks creator Aaron MacGruder add to the original script by John Ridley) but what he really seems to have a hand in is the excellent battle scenes. That guy’s been obsessed with dogfights for god damn ever, and here he puts the visual detail, thrilling momentum and all-encompassing sound of REVENGE OF SITHS opening space battle into a historical Earthling type context. This is probly the most planes I’ve ever seen in one movie.

Since George Lucas is behind this obviously it’s gonna turn out the Tuskegee Airmen story is the most important thing that happened in the childhood of all white people and they’re gonna be fuckin enraged that he did it the way George Lucas would do it and not the correct way. He made it so the Germans shot first. The characters aren’t based on specific historical figures, and alot of it is not really what happened in the battles and what not. But you know, it’s like that famous story about the time somebody asked Ben Franklin hey man, can you fuckin believe they ruined history by making that bullshit movie where Abraham Lincoln kills vampires. And Franklin is quoted as having said fuck no, dude, if they ruined history then what is this shit right here and he points to a history book on the shelf and it’s in real good condition, not ruined at all.

I had read that this was an old timey cornball throwback type deal, but I think those stories were exaggerated. It’s a movie with dramatic rescues, slow deaths and a team chant that would also work in an underdog football movie, but it has room for quiet and subtle. After the attack on the train Lightning has to go apologize to the guy who builds the plane for the damage he did to it, and he seems way more nervous about that than he does about any combat. Even better is the scene after he gets out of the brig and thinks he’s gonna be court-martialed, but they just chew him out and then let him go because they can’t afford to lose him. He has a long walk through the base, and people are saying hi, happy to see him out, but he’s very subdued because he knows he has to apologize to Easy for calling him a sellout when they were arguing earlier. And meaning it.

It’s old fashioned in that it deals with the issues in a simple and optimistic way. It sure is a light depiction of alcoholism – drinking doesn’t seem to cause a real problem for Easy other than making people think he might’ve made a wrong decision because of it. It seems like it’s more a matter of making a good impression than beating an addiction. And the racism is dealt with mainly by showing racist white pilots talk shit but then invite the Airmen for drinks when they see how good they are. But you know what, it’s not supposed to be the definitive story of how much racism between WWII soldiers was a bummer, and who made up this rule that all black movies gotta be primarily about racism? That’s a stupid rule.

On the extras they quote Lucas as telling the cast, “I’m not here to make a movie about victims, I’m here to make a movie about heroes.” In interviews he said he wanted to make a John Wayne movie for black teenagers: “They have a right to have their history just like anybody else does. And they have a right to have it kind of Hollywood-ized and aggrandized and made corny and wonderful just like anybody else does. Even if that’s not the fashion right now.”

I think they succeeded at making that movie, and I’m not sure I would trust Lucas to do the serious racism exploration some people seem to think this should be instead. Wait a minute, aren’t you the same motherfuckers whose blood still boils at the thought of what he did to his own STAR WARS movies 15 years ago, and now all the sudden you demand that he become the official cinematic chronicler of the African American experience during the war? Aren’t you also the same motherfuckers who got mad when Spike Lee did sort of make that movie?

It’s kind of funny – people like to accuse Lucas of being racist because he doesn’t have enough brothers in STAR WARS and they think Jar Jar is supposed to be black and I don’t know what else. But here he is producing this movie. He doesn’t have to use the old “some of my best friends are black” line to defend himself anymore. Now he can use “some of my best movies, directors, writers, composers and girlfriend are black.”

Anyway, I don’t know if the black teenagers liked it or not, but I did.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012 at 11:04 am and is filed under Action, Reviews, War. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

24 Responses to “Red Tails”

  1. Hey, look at that, Vern isn’t alone in liking this poorly reviewed movie.

    I said a little something about this in a potpourri post when I saw it in the theatre 4 months ago:
    **RED TAILS has given me my fix for seeing Nazis killed in abundance. Seeing Nazis die never gets old, and here they die creatively, often screaming while fire engulfs them.

    Not a bad movie, but (and this is very odd for me to say) I wish it had been much much longer. I’m not asking for a tv series, but rather a 3-4 hour epic. Could have been fucking amazing if all the narrative threads had been given more time & muscle to support the script’s massive skeleton. A 4 hour epic — that kind of movie always scores big with theatre audiences — cha-ching, right? Big miss there, Lucas.

    The dialogue is often totally on the nose, and the subplots are rushed. The George Lucas interview with Jon Stewart turned out to be very helpful to my enjoyment, though. I believe he said he wanted to make, or produce in this case, a movie that young people & teenagers, especially young black Americans, could enjoy, an old-fashioned war story. I hear arguments & critics’ praises that that was what CAPTAIN AMERICA & WAR HORSE were supposed to be (minus the targeted black angle, I guess), but for me RED TAILS works much better than either of those 2 movies. Not essential viewing, but pretty good if you can overcome some of the groaners in the script.

    Also it’s total bullshit that neither Method Man nor Ne-Yo are on the soundtrack. I’m sick of filmatists not trading off realism for the chance to bump some anachronistic rhymes & crooning.**

  2. I gotta say, it really bummed me out that this thing kinda fizzled at the box office, because I think Lucas’ sentiment about creating different kinds of black characters/heroes is hugely important. We have so few different images of black men (and particularly women) in our culture, and there’s surprising cultural resistance to new ones. Lucas said he had to put up money for this one himself because the conventional wisdom is that white people won’t go see an action movie with an all-black cast, but he thought that was baloney and people would go see an exciting movie irregardless of race. Guess not. But one thing I don’t think Lucas thought through very well is that young people these days (of all races) don’t really care about John Wayne. They’re looking for a different type of hero. George is thinking about his heroes when he was a kid, which may not be the best way to really address the cultural issues he’s thinking about.

  3. Didn’t Lucas also say on the Daily Show interview that this was the first time an action movie had a primarily black cast? Had he never heard of blaxploitation before?

    Eh, I didn’t see this. I had seen the HBO TUSKEGEE AIRMEN movie though, and I was fine with that. I think this one is meant to be airing on the movie channels over here soon, so I’ll make sure to check it out.

    Mouth-“Also it’s total bullshit that neither Method Man nor Ne-Yo are on the soundtrack. I’m sick of filmatists not trading off realism for the chance to bump some anachronistic rhymes & crooning.”
    Yeah at least Inglourious Basterds gave us some Bowie.

  4. It does seem kinda fucked up that there are hardly any black movie hero figures, hardly any quality all-black movie casts.

    There’s plenty of room for a black history cultural hero somewhere between George Lucas’s old-timey, John Wayne-ish, patriotic, underperforming movie’s ideas and Public Enemy’s angry “Motherfuck [Elvis] and John Wayne” Fight The Power sentiment.

    I guess the “problem” is that few people have figured out how to market an all-black movie or whatever that “different type of hero” is. Not that we should conflate monetary success with achievement in terms of racial equality. I dunno, I’m no expert. I paid for a movie ticket for RED TAILS. It’s everyone’s fault but mine.

  5. Ehh, I’d agree that it’s rare, but I’d disagree that it’s non-existent. Will Smith and Denzel Washington come to mind, specifically in something like Book of Eli of I am Legend where they really carry the entire movie, and both of those performed well. If Red Tails did poorly, it’s less the all black cast then it is the very cheesy “after-school special” feel to the movie (haven’t seen it, but that’s how it feels in the trailers). Audiences don’t like being lectured to, and the dogfights look extremely cgi and fake from the trailers, which probably drew away a lot of the action crowd.
    What happened to flying real planes in action movies like they did in the 60s/70s (or hell, even as recently as Pearl Harbor)?.

  6. Yeah, but Denzel and Will are almost always surrounded by mostly white casts. Both of them usually have a white sidekick, particularly Denzel, who’ll bust out his “gruff but avuncular mentor” schtick for any younger white guy with chiseled enough abs to bring in the teen girls. Having the entire cast of a big-budget special effects movie be black is definitely some new shit.

  7. the Red Letter Media guys absolutely tore this movie a new one, but ya know, those guys are not exactly fans of George Lucas

    I guess I’ll check it out on blu ray then

  8. I don’t think this films lack of success at the box office has that much to do if anything at all with the fact it features a predominantly black cast, I think it is because it is about WWII fighter pilots. I am interested in WWII fighter pilots, but I am not sure if there is a market is for a large budget WWII fighter pilot pop corn movie in this day and age. Also, if you look at a film like the KARATE KID remake with lil’ Smith & Jackie, it had almost no white actors in it and was a huge success at the box office. I also, bet the subject not the cast played a big part in studios passing on the project & Lucas struggling to find financing. Studios would have thrown money at George Lucas if he said he was going make a film about a squad of black X-wing fighter pilots that attacked the first death star.

  9. Vern – Not seen RED TAILS. Thanks for the heads up.

    As for why you wonder you’re liking poorly reviewed movies….maybe you had a recent near-death experience?

  10. I suspect that Lucas & co are (rightfully) banking on the Stand And Deliver phenomenon, as far as this movie’s viewership is concerned: it’ll be shown in classrooms across the country for years to come, so millions of people will wind up seeing it eventually, regardless of its initial faceplant.

  11. “Studios would have thrown money at George Lucas if he said he was going make a film about a squad of black X-wing fighter pilots that attacked the first death star.”

    Charles – didn’t Lucas in an interview say as much that a reason no studio would back RED TAILS was because there was no sequel/merchandising investment for them? (oh the fucking irony that this would happen to Lucas of all people.)

    But yes, I think you’re right.

  12. To parafrase Bill Murray; “People are idiots, they like blood sausage”. I never put much weight on either critics nor box office. Looking forward to this one on dvd. Lucas said about The Phantom Menace that it’s “just a movie”, and he’s had the same relaxed approach on the talk shows I’ve seen, he doesn’t push the movie at all really, it’s there for us to discover. I like that.

  13. I’m fine with this one. Does the job.

  14. I did overall enjoy this. I will agree that the dialogue taking a sledgehammer to the nose was somewhat distracting. But it is hard to disagree with a movie that believes in its self this much.

    Also, Vern, I figure you are just doing this to mess with all of the people that revere The Wire (myself being such an individual), but I am pretty sure that the director of Red Tails was Anthony Hemingway, not Hamilton. So if you were doing it to mess with someone, consider it mission accomplished.

  15. I didn’t pass on it because it had an all black cast, I passed on it cause it looked like another shitty, CGI-filled George Lucas movie. Jesus Christ himself could have returned from Heaven and made his big screen debut in this movie, and I STILL wouldn’t have bothered to go see the sucker.

  16. Honestly, the only parts of this movie I could enjoy were the scenes where none of the actors were onscreen. The moment the movie opened, I had a sinking feeling. It felt like an early-90s tv special, from the opening credits, to the terrible earnest dialogue, to almost caricature-like performances. The main German pilot villain was the worst. I seriously felt bad for all of the actors who were forced to perform in what was basically a glorified stage play intercut with CGI dogfights.

    Which brings me to the only watchable parts – the dogfights, which were amazing to watch. If they had simply edited together the exterior shots, I would have been happy. I think it’s probably expected that when George Lucas is involved, the parts of the movie that does not involve the human actors are parts that can be completely jettisoned.

  17. That *does* involve human actors…

    Damn typos.

  18. I dunno. That’s pretty sad and shitty if the movie truly bombed because of the predominant race of the cast. Like D.S. said, I didn’t see not see it because of the cast, I didn’t see it because the trailers made it look like a piece of shit, and George Lucas has very few good will cards left to play with me.

    Somebody make a ‘good’ action movie with an all black cast and I’ll go see it. Twice. Like I did with the Raid. I don’t need whitey to have a good time at the movies.

  19. Me-“I think this one is meant to be airing on the movie channels over here soon, so I’ll make sure to check it out.”
    My mistake. Turns out it’s only coming out in CINEMAS over here soon. That’s not a good sign.

  20. I can’t believe anyone liked Red Tails, but to each their own. I didn’t think a movie could be this cheesy, but it’s 100% pure cheese in every way. I get the fact that they were trying to do the story as basically a throwback to all those old war movies, but it just didn’t work for me. The casting was horrible, nobody really fit in the roles they were given. A big issue I have with how black actors are cast in movies like this. It’s almost like they didn’t care whether the actors fit the roles as long as mainstream(white) America knew who they were. Cuba Gooding JR as the tough Major was the worst offender here to me. There’s really nothing about him that fits that role and he always seems like he’s trying to play tough instead of actually being it. I think what made the casting worse to me is I just recently watched A Soldiers Story for the first time. Watching that movie probably ruined any chance of me enjoying this complete and total throwaway puff piece. Every role in A Soldiers Story was damn near perfectly cast. Cuba Gooding Jr couldn’t hold Adolph Caeser’s jockstrap. I’m not sure why George Lucas thought that making a completely cheesy movie with very little dramatic stakes would be a good way to honor the Tuskegee Airmen.

    I personally think the 1995 HBO movie Tuskegee Airmen beats this movie by a mile. The casting is much better and there’s actually a good dramatic story. Cuba Gooding was in that one also and he was in the role he should have been in, which was basically a likable but kind of goofy soldier. How in the hell did it take Lucas over twenty years to come up with this terrible movie? It plays like something that is trying hard to make you like it and was put together on an assembly line.

  21. Well, obviously Gooding and Howard are in the marquee name slots, but did you know who any of the other leads were? I only knew Method Man, and he has like two lines.

  22. I’ve seen quite a few of the other leads in black movies and tv shows. Tristan Wilds is from the wire,the mechanic was also from the Wire(I don’t remember his name though), Ne-Yo(who was really terrible) is a singer, and Nate Parker is an up and coming actor. Parker was ok, the mechanic was probably the one who fit his role the most of the actors mentioned, the other 2 not so much. Cuba was really bad in my mind, Howard was ok but it felt like a phoned in performance.

    I know a lot of these actors because I try to keep up with up and coming black actors that have some promise. I was teenager in the late 80’s and early 90’s when Spike Lee basically started the black filmmaking renaissance of the 90’s. The Hughes Brothers, Spike, John Singleton, The Hudlin Brothers. That time was pretty damn good time for black filmmakers, actors, and movie lovers like myself. . Now I’ve got Madea and Red Tails to look forward to.

    I’m not begrudging anyone for liking Red Tails, I get why someone would like it. It’s a fluffy piece of entertainment, almost like the black version of Pearl Harbor. I just really wanted something with more weight to it. I might have been able to get past the actors if the aerial scenes had some sort of intensity to them. For whatever reasons the stakes felt low in all of aerial scenes. It’s the same problem that quite a few actions movies have now. I never believed anyone of importance could, or would be, hurt. When someone was hurt it literary made me think of the scene in Black Dynamite where the militant shows Black Dynamite his family pictures and then is promptly killed as Black Dynamite says “Who saw that commi….Who saw where that came from?. Just a really disappointing movie for me, and a disappointing time for black movies in general.

  23. I don’t know if Vern plans on revisiting this one for his current review series. So I’ll just bump this just in case. I finally watched this and while I certainly enjoyed it a lot more than I expected (thanks in part to the cheese) it also wasn’t as fun as I thought it would be. I kind of expected like a “TREMORS in the heavens” type deal tonally but this one is pretty much as run-of-the-mill as you can get in my opinion.

  24. I’m excited to watch it again so I’ll write about it unless I feel like I have nothing new to add to this review.

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