Set against the backdrop in the skies above 1944 Italy at the height of WWII, Red Tails opens up on four squad fighters in pursuit of a low-profile target. Nicknamed ‘Easy’ (Nate Parker), ‘Lightning’ (David Oyelowo), ‘Joker’ (Elijah Kelley) and ‘Junior’ (Tristan Wilds), these four fly outdated P-40 fighter planes for the first African American aerial combat unit known as the Tuskegee Airmen. However, these dedicated flyers are only assigned to eliminate ground-based targets because it is widely assumed within the military that men of color lack the intelligence or skill to handle situations such as dog fighting. Based on actual events, this film tells the story of these highly-accomplished heroes who had to fight fascism in the air… and prejudice on the ground.
The sharp-tongued squad fighters take on every mission assigned to them, no matter how seemingly unimportant. Eventually, they’re assigned to defend a beach landing, throwing them into their first dog fight… the results of which catch the attention of the higher military ranks. When it becomes clear to military leaders at the Pentagon that protecting American bombers en route to German targets requires a rather unorthodox approach, Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard) demands that the Tuskegee Airmen, under the watchful eye of Major Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr) are given the chance to prove themselves… with the help of some new P-51 fighter planes, of course. To make the squad more distinctive and recognizable, the tails of these planes are painted red – hence the nickname ‘Red Tails’.
In the midst of the war around them, these men deal with their own challenges. Drowning his pain with liquor, ‘Easy’ bares the mental wounds of the expectations placed onto him by his father; always the tough guy who’s ready to strike at anything in his way, ‘Lightning’ must explore a more patient side when pursuing a relationship with Sofia (Daniela Ruah); ‘Junior’ simply wants to be considered something more than just a kid; and Colonel Bullard must continually stand up against those who don’t respect him for the opportunity his men deserve. These ventures on the ground see the men through various struggles which are always overcome through a true sense of camaraderie and bravery.
Understanding that Red Tails based on actual events, it’s to be expected that some dramatization will exist for the sake of artistic expression – though the general look and feel of the of the film was authentic. With most battles taking place in the air, there isn’t much exposure to the horrors that one experiences on the ground during a war… which leads to an apparent lack of that ‘gritty’ feel in most action movies.
As there’s a wide range of talent in the cast, the film is carried largely on the backs of the more seasoned actors; but well enough that everything flows nicely. With most dialogue being short and to the point, there are no lengthy conversations or speeches drawn out by the occasional ‘pause for reflection’ – this allows for the story to play out at a consistent pace. However, with a runtime of about two hours, the film may have benefitted from another twenty minutes of dialogue and interaction with the sub-plots occurring on the ground, allowing for a deeper exploration into character development, backstory, range of emotion and explanation of plot details. There were simply too many stories to be told and locations to be shown within two hours, leaving the viewer desiring just a little more.
The photography, costuming and art direction of Red Tails is quite beautiful, and perhaps somewhat stylized and exaggerated. Every shot was composed and choreographed so delicately that it progresses visually like something from a comic book. This look is in stark contrast to the color-bleached and handheld photography of Saving Private Ryan; but more like the perfectly-lit and wide-angle photography of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. George Lucas has always been a fan of dog fighting (present in a number of his StarWars films) but he also leans toward ensuring that every shot of his more recent films are as clean as possible, leading to an often ‘airbrushed’ look – something made possible with computer technology in post-production.
The aerial combat and dog fighting scenes are fast, action-packed and just fun to watch. One can’t help but hate the rather two-dimensional German fighter pilot our heroes nickname ‘Pretty Boy’ as he appears time and time again in these combat scenes. Thankfully, the use of explosions is kept to a minimal as planes are instead ripped to shreds by the hailstorm of bullets coming at them. Though the CG fighter plane effects were very well done, some artistic license was taken in their formations and tight flight patterns for the sake of cinematographic drama. But hey, it’s an action movie.
This is one of those ‘well-wrapped’ films that utilizes something of a formulaic approach to telling the story because it’s safe. It’s a war film without much of the blood one might expect; a story about racial prejudice without much of the true ugliness that entails. Somewhat predictable, there’s a level of comfort with the lack of extremely emotional ‘cliffhanger’ moments. As a whole, the film moves at a great pace and has just right amount of well-times surprises and light-hearted humor juxtaposed against military politics and violence to make it a truly enjoyable experience. Red Tails is a great film for anyone – there’s a little something for everyone here.