Movie Review: Red Tails

Red Tails, an action movie based on “the first African-American combat unit to serve in World War II” (as read from the back of the DVD case) and named for the distinctive paint scheme the Tuskegee Airmen gave some of their planes, is at turns exciting and boring: while the movie delivers plenty of base thrills, the story and character development feel unfinished and half-explained. The movie does maintain something of a “so bad, it’s good” appeal in terms of the goofy combat banter, but viewers hoping for a story with more subtlety than a hammer may want to look elsewhere.

The film’s pacing starts off quite well, as various African pilots are already busy shooting at a number of German targets, including a train whose explosion looks, somehow, technically impressive and fake all at once. The Germans feel like throwaway villains in this movie, as they really play no role in the actual narrative, for good or for evil. The American conflict against the Nazis has an obvious place in history, but for the purposes of the story, the German not-characters exist for little other reason than to be shot at and to occasionally make derogatory statements about Africans.

The dialogue, with brilliant pieces such as “Prepare to feel the wrath of the Ray Gun,” feels silly and out of place from the start, and the common use of profanity does nothing to establish any sort of tense or emotional atmosphere. (In the case of that specific line, it makes sense for the character speaking, who carries a Buck Rogers toy as a lucky charm.) The various lines seem too gritty to fit well with some characters’ underacted or high-pitched voices, though delightfully one pilot looks and sounds like Chris Tucker as Ruby Rhod from The Fifth Element.

More annoyingly, the opening credits take up very large portions of the screen, as though they couldn’t have been restricted to the bottom or omitted entirely. This is especially disappointing given that the action scenes themselves look great even without story depth, even if they can be somewhat hard to follow (e.g., which country’s plane is which from a distance).

The story at this point feels aimless, and even when it starts to head somewhere–establishing that blacks are as capable of fighting well as men of other skin tones and should be given more important missions–none of its elements feel complete. There’s little real characterization beyond basic personality quirks for the main characters, and the white American and German antagonists generally don’t even get that much.

A similarly awful romantic subplot has only the barest elements and no actual identity: a guy, one of the pilots; a girl, who said pilot believes will bear his children before the two have even met; displays of affection; and a predictable ending. This is supposed to be presented as a believable, healthy relationship despite the fact that the couple doesn’t even share a common language (she speaks Italian and isn’t fluent in English), engage in mutual interests (save one), or work together to overcome relationship challenges or personal disagreements. It’s understandable that these elements aren’t important for the movie’s central battles and might not ‘fit’ well within the structure of a rather standard war movie, but if that’s the case, then the story would lose nothing meaningful by dropping this subplot entirely.

The dialogue and story feel manipulative at every turn, because the heroic African fighter pilots, who laugh and cheer while taking German lives, are seemingly portrayed not as being “equally human” but altogether being more so than the flat and near-universally unhelpful white Americans and the equally monolithic Germans. (Even if the Tuskegee Airmen are fighting out of necessity, the point is that they unambiguously enjoy killing, and the audience is supposed to feel similarly. Contrast an Inglourious Basterds scene where the movie tricks viewers into wanting to cheer at Germans being killed, just before it shows Nazis watching a movie and doing the very same thing to Americans.)

Meanwhile the white Americans and Germans just ‘sound evil’ even in the inflections of their voices, never mind their dialogue, which is usually limited to condemning blacks over and over, as if the viewer will quickly forget what the Airmen were up against both abroad and at home. Whites eventually have something of a change of heart: a scene showing a group apologizing to the Airmen and treating them to drinks does make sense in its own context, but the transition from anti-African bigotry to full acceptance, while welcome, also seems abrupt. (The brass, after a while, doesn’t even bother trying to justify its attitude toward the Airmen, and whether or not that laziness in motivation is historical, it doesn’t make for a very interesting plot.)

The Airmen are portrayed as being flawed while maintaining some semblance of personality outside those flaws, but the whites and Germans in this movie are generally defined by theirs. In a display of mutual pointlessness, one black man gets called the dreaded n-word and uses that as an excuse to punch the white speaker in the face. This reflects negatively on the Airmen as a whole, as it could easily be used as an equally convenient and unjust ‘excuse’ to question their discipline as a group, something the movie rightly points out.

This event also serves as something of a catalyst for fueling long-standing rivalries and tensions among the various Airmen tasked with escorting bombers at close range instead of going directly after enemy fighters, with some pilots wanting to be ‘heroes’ and hotshots and others wanting to follow orders. Said hotshots, a tiny group, go after a huge German destroyer and have no problem disabling it in spite of its anti-air defenses; to be perfectly honest, the people who seem to die the most in aerial combat in this movie are usually Germans and perhaps white Americans.

(Mild spoilers)

The Tuskegee Airmen can and often do get away with anything in this film, as though they’re invincible, and they’re often treated like they are–unless the story wants to rouse emotion, in which case even those moments’ outcomes sometimes feel cheap. More than one scene arbitrarily produces a happy ending from a horrible set of circumstances without really detailing how exactly the person involved was able to survive. In another moment, even in a case where the pilot foolishly flies head-on toward an enemy aircraft and earns precisely the outcome one might expect, the story treats this as a brave act and expects the audience to do the same. Worse, a “happy” scene quickly and unexpectedly follows a much more tragic one, resulting in a rough mood shift.

(End spoilers)

This story essentially lacks plot twists and narrative surprises, and one might be able to guess most of the plot events based on the opening minutes of the movie. As a pure action movie, Red Tails delivers exciting battles and impressive effects. In terms of the necessary context for discussing a historical war movie, there’s no real humanity provided to the comically evil Germans, who in terms of actions explicitly performed in the film are really no worse than the white Americans except in the area of actively fighting the Airmen.

Even considering the grossly unjustifiable deeds of the Nazi regime and of the various racist groups in the States (which makes the credits’ use of “America the Beautiful,” itself a listless-sounding rendition, feel that much more awkward), the movie seems primarily concerned with establishing the dignity of its black protagonists and only them; nearly everyone else is painted in broad strokes, as perhaps one non-Airman person in the entire film actively questions the negative assumptions made toward black pilots, at least until the Airmen save the day over and over. And even as the film contains some great sights and excellent sound effects, Red Tails, at best a retread of ground already covered by Glory, isn’t really much better than the stereotypes it criticizes.

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9 thoughts on “Movie Review: Red Tails

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