“Germans! Let’s get them!”

George Lucas, obviously, isn’t solely to blame for Red Tails - a pandering clutter of vacant emotional beats, thudding dialogue and glossy CG dogfighting. But this was his baby, a carrot on a stick he’s been wielding in interviews for over two decades. Tails has always come off as something of a passion project for Lucas much in the same way Spielberg spoke, and still speaks, of Schindler’s List. No, he’s not solely to blame. But he certainly got the ball rolling.

It’s hard to determine where producer George Lucas ends and director Anthony Hemingway begins. So much of what is wrong in the Star Wars prequels is maddeningly present here. Lucas may not have directed the film, but this wholeheartedly feels like Lucas’ work of recent vintage. Much like the prequels, it’s not about what’s there. It’s about what isn’t – and Red Tails is a film without an emotional center.

“This is for you, pretty white boy with your bright yellow nose!”

What confounds me is why this, a historical biopic inspired by the famed Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, was a story that Lucas in particular felt so compelled to tell. If this is truly the Red Tails that Lucas had envisioned in his head for all these years, then we’ve clearly overestimated his grasp on how to entertain an audience. This film has an A, a B, and nothing of substance in the journey from one to the other.

“Red tails. This will make the group distinctive!”

This is a story that should be told, that deserves to be told on the big screen. The allegory of the Tuskegee Airmen is an inspired one – they were the first African American pilots in the United States and their contributions to the war amidst racial strife are the very definition of heroism. But its astounding how screenwriters John Ridley and Aaron McGruder (and one assumes Lucas had a sweaty paw in this as well) handle both narrative and character so dismissively.

The Tuskegee Airmen were interesting, compelling men with a great story to tell. Red Tails presupposes that they weren't.

Every character is a tired archetype. There’s the hot shot Lighting (David Oyelowo), that doesn’t do what he’s told. There’s also the conflicted leader Easy (Nate Parker), refusing the call around every turn. The comedic wise guy Smokey, played by Ne-Yo, ferociously chews his way through through the film’s framework and is a strong early contender for the most irritating character of 2012. Poor Cuba Gooding Jr. looks as if he lost his Oscar and stumbled into Red Tails to find it. He doesn’t, and his insistance on mugging through every scene no matter what’s actually happening is either a joke or a sad commentary on the importance with which he views his craft. The lines of dialogue these characters are asked to deliver do them no favors, and the actors spew them out with the conviction and grace of reading a Sunday newspaper aloud to your kids.

“How do you like that, Mr. Hitler?!”

There are some real clunkers in Red Tails.  I can take historical inaccuracies. I can accept the fact that the maneuvers planes pull off in the film simply weren’t possible. I can accept that when a character spends five minutes of the film getting doused with fuel in his cockpit, he’s still able to be pulled from the wreckage when his plane crashes and explodes. I can even accept that three years of WWII combat has been condensed to what feels like a few days. But I can’t accept any of these things if the screenwriters, the actors, the director, don’t believe. And it’s clear that they don’t. There’s no effort in Red Tails, no poetry. ILM does their usual inspired work in the effects, but if the story on the ground isn’t there then who cares what’s happening in the sky? Red Tails is not a complete film. It strings together some scenes, some CG dogfights, kills a character or two for dramatic effect, brings one back for the happy ending, then it ends. It mercifully ends.

Planes will suspiciously maneuver like X-Wings in Red Tails.

“I can’t lead these men. I’ve made too many mistakes!”

Someday there will be a great film that tells the story of the Tuskegee Airman in a way that it truly deserves. These were great men, heroic and brave at a time in history when no one would have blamed them for phoning it in. But Red Tails is not that film. These were not infallible human beings, they were true flesh and blood men with fears, flaws and eccentricities. Tails never dives beyond its glossy surface level to make that distinction and lend the film a more profound emotional resonance.

“You’ve made one big mistake: that self-pity of yours. But it ends right here! Right now!”

I’m not mad at George Lucas, but I do feel sorry for him. It’s clear now that he doesn’t understand the fundementals of mainstream storytelling. Sure, there’s money in Lucas’ methods. But when your recent filmography is Red Tails, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and the Star Wars prequels, that alone speaks volumes. If Lucas’ heart wasn’t in his recent works that’s one thing. But when your passion project is every bit as clunky and vapid as your failures, then it’s time to hang it up. And mean it this time.

Rating: 
★★

Out of a Possible 5 Stars

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