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Marshall Fine Headshot

Movie Review: Red Tails

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It's been interesting to hear George Lucas complaining about the lack of attention being paid to the black-themed film from his production company, Red Tails.

The conventional wisdom is that Lucas himself had to put his money and his influence behind the movie to get it made and released because the studios aren't interested in movies about black characters. Without a white sidekick, or a white hero of some sort to mitigate the rest of the film's ethnicity, the studios don't think something like Red Tails will find an audience.

Well, I personally don't imagine the film will find an audience, but not because it's about black people. I think people will avoid it because it's not very good.

Despite what no doubt were state-of-the-art visual effects thanks to the involvement of LucasFilm, Red Tails is further proof that visual tricks and flashily edited action sequences aren't enough to make a movie interesting. You also have to have a story that's exciting and characters you want to care about.

Red Tails, however, is mostly a lengthy pastiche of cliches from World War II combat movies. It doesn't matter that the characters are African-American: One size cliché fits all.

The script by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder is based on the true story of the Tuskegee Airmen -- the first group of black soldiers trained as fighter pilots. Once they were trained, however, they still weren't given actual combat assignments -- just as black infantrymen were kept out of the fighting until 1944 -- thanks to the U.S. military's rules segregating the various branches.

So the black airmen fly innocuous scouting runs across the Italian countryside in 1944, shooting up German trucks and, occasionally, a German munitions train if they can find one. Their commander, Col. Bullard (Terrence Howard), has to go to Washington to plead their case to let them fly, when a false report leaks saying the black pilots have been found wanting.

Instead of having their unit disbanded, they're given a chance to prove themselves, flying cover for a beach landing in Italy. Their mission: to protect the ships, and the soldiers that the ships are disgorging. And, of course, they perform to perfection -- though it's not enough to end bigotry in the world.

They are, however, assigned to a duty that white fighter pilots routinely screw up: protecting big flights of bombers en route to dropping their payload. Previous fighter squadrons had a bad habit of getting distracted by the packs of German fighters and would take off in pursuit, leaving the bombers defenseless. The 332nd Fighter Squadron, however, proves themselves able to follow orders: to protect the bombers and stay in formation -- and become known as the Red Tails, because the tails of their planes have been painted crimson.

But the questions of racial inequality are touched upon with broad strokes. Meanwhile, the black fighter squadron is made up of the hoariest of stereotypes: the conscientious leader who has a drinking problem; the hot-shot pilot who is always disobeying orders and taking risks; the devoutly religious one that everyone calls Deacon; and, of course, a couple of cartoonishly happy-go-lucky country lads. They don't all make it out alive -- and you won't have much trouble figuring out which ones won't survive the film.

They don't get blasted out of the sky any too soon -- certainly not before your patience for this grindingly slow film runs out. Red Tails doesn't crash and burn -- mostly because it barely gets off the ground.

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