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Red Tails—movie review

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
January 20, 2012 11:52 AM
25 Comments
  • |
David Oyelowo is Joe 'Lightning' Little in 'Red Tails'. Lucasfilm Ltd. and TM.

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is one that every American should know, and deserving of a great film; unfortunately, this isn’t it. If one were scoring good intentions it would get an A for effort, simply for bringing a portion of this vast saga to theater screens. But the screenplay resembles an earnest junior high school play; that isn’t worthy of the subject or the people behind this endeavor.

Red Tails has been a pet project of George Lucas’ for many years, and as one would expect it is technically flawless. The aerial action, including multiple dogfights and perilous missions over Italy and Germany, is executed with breathtaking precision—all the more amazing when one learns that virtually everything was created by computer wizards, including the interiors of the cockpits that house the leading actors! The “effects” are invisible, and these scenes give the movie moments of great energy and excitement. Such startling realism wouldn’t have been possible even a decade ago.

It’s a shame that the same effort wasn’t lavished on the script, credited to John Ridley and Aaron McGruder. It’s actually reminiscent of a corny Hollywood movie made during the era it depicts, the 1940s, and as such, may play best to youthful audiences who might not recognize its many clichés and shopworn characters. (Wait till you see how the Germans are portrayed!) The film is bolstered by extremely likable performances from the actors who play the key pilots, David Oyelowo, Nate Parker, Ne-Yo, Tristan Wilds, and Michael B. Jordan. Their lively interaction, on the ground and in the air, keeps the film from becoming just a stale history lesson. In the showiest role, as a cocky flyer who won’t listen to orders—and who courts an Italian girl during his off-hours—Oyelowo has the best opportunity to score with moviegoers.

Lucasfilm, Ltd. and TM.

The two best-known members of the cast are saddled with cardboard characters. Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays the calm, pipe-smoking major who oversees day-to-day operations at the squadron’s Italian air base. Terrence Howard is even more one-dimensional as the colonel who battles for respect and recognition with the top Army brass, some of whom cannot disguise their racist attitudes. His part consists almost exclusively of speeches, rather than dialogue.

I would not hesitate to take young people to see this film, if it exposes them to this remarkable piece of American history for the first time. (With a PG-13 rating they will hear an occasional four-letter word.) One could also check out the 1995 HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen, which boasted a top-notch cast led by Laurence Fishburne, Andre Braugher, Malcolm Jamal-Warner, Courtney B. Vance, Mekhi Phifer, and the very same Cuba Gooding, Jr. But I can’t abandon my critical faculties and recommend Red Tails as a genuinely good movie.

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25 Comments

  • Michael | July 12, 2012 11:55 PMReply

    A tough movie to review and Maltin does a good job of it, though he is probably too gentle with the criticism which it truly merits -- it's not a very good movie. I still can't get over the Stalag tunnel escape scene, stolen directly from the Great Escape. Laughable.

    The HBO "Tuskeegee" movie is infinitely better written and acted and addresses the important issues much more effectively than this does. That's the one I'm going to show my kids.

  • jon | June 16, 2012 3:52 PMReply

    just watched the DVD and skipped through looking for some good scenes....could not find one!!! Should have never been released and Lucas was forced into retirement because of this so called film. Acting was the worst ever witnessed and trust me I have seen some horrific films. Goodbye Mr. Hitler haha....if this were a comedy the actors should have all received oscars!

  • gene | June 3, 2012 7:27 PMReply

    THIS BIAS PIECE OF HORSE SH-T. DO YOU REALLY THINK THE RED ASSES WON HE WAR ALL BY THEMSELVES ..IF THE BLACKS ARE SO SMART ...WHY ARE THERE TWO DIFFERENT SCORING SYSTEMS WHEN IT COME TO CIVIL SERVANT TEST

  • mentd | May 2, 2012 3:46 PMReply

    Sick of crap movies with "agendas" being sold to us. Why not just make good films?
    Going to a movie is not a "voting experience" where you give the film that has
    the most positive message the money. Movies are supposed to be good movies FIRST.

  • Leroi Pryce | February 12, 2012 5:37 PMReply

    I wasn't a huge fan of this teenage comic book movie. So I made a hilarous SpooF of it. Here it is-----> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Krw74qP1yQ&feature=youtube_gdata_player

  • moomoo | February 1, 2012 8:11 PMReply

    i think this movie is a great movie. If you are a teacher you should recomend it as a field trip.

  • Dale Andrews | January 29, 2012 9:41 PMReply

    Well, I have to agree with Mr. Maltin's assessment. This ain't no Saving Private Ryan. It's 'historical', but it's not history. It's interplane banter is laughable (I'm a military pilot). But then so was the banter in Top Gun and all other aerial war films, especially those from the 40s, and 50s. This movie is Star Wars with propellers, and Black people. Still it was a fun movie to watch. If you want a history lesson (and most people don't for $10.00), then you can buy the Double Victory DVD that Mr. Lucas is putting out to give more historical detail about the group. Oh, yeah, the only thing the Germans were missing was a monacle (lol!). I half expected to hear John Williams' Stormship Trooper marching music. Okay, I'll lighten up. Mr. Lucas had to make a movie that people would have fun seeing. He said it himself, that he wasn't making a Civil Rights movie. He was making an action movie about a bunch of heroes. He did that.

  • Pat | January 29, 2012 8:47 PMReply

    I really enjoyed my night at the movie, Red Tails!...I enjoyed the view, the action and the acting!...in a country which still in 2012 excludes from its history books and history classes substantial blocks of history recounting the contributions of African Americans and other minorities to the construction, protection, and prosperity of this great country, it is imperative to get true history lessons to the masses using every available outlet whether HBO, mainstream media or whatever! The movie is very much an action adventure entertainment feature, but it is also full of historical information, sort of like the stories we tell from family to family with each generation adding it's own flavor. As long as we continue to see comments like that of Jo (below) the making of movies such as this one has had the kind of effect I view as priceless! I personally loved seeing the technical genius that is George Lucas on the big screen, but to those folks who will wait until it comes out on DVD, GREAT!....long as you see it! To the critics, you guys get it wrong all the time which is why movie goers determine the success of films and not movie critics...hey it's a job and somebody's gotta do it! Thanks George Lucas and the entire cast of Red Tails for this great film!

  • Jo | January 28, 2012 8:08 PMReply

    I went with a friend last weekend to see this movie. While it may not be the best movie I have ever seen, compared to the GARBAGE in the upcoming movies previewed, it is a spectactular movie. I go to a movie to be entertained and I was entertained. I agree that some of the dialog and script were a bit stilted, I was left with a feeling of shame for the way these persons were treated. I also was left with a thirst to explore more deeply their story. I did not see the HBO moview so I cannot compare with this one. Sadly, I was ignorant about the Tuskegee Airmen but definitely plan to learn more about them and their story

  • PhillyBuster | January 22, 2012 8:20 PMReply

    I'd just like to reiterate that the point of the film was not to be a film like The Tuskegee Airmen film from HBO - it's meant to be an action/adventure film with an all-Black cast that uses the historical significance of the Tuskegee Airmen as the backdrop. As if the world only can handle having 1 film about the Tuskegee Airmen and only from a documentary-like perspective! Stop comparing the two and instead recognize it as something that has been missing FOREVER from American film - an action/adventure genre-flick centered around African Americans. After years of super-serious films and ridiculously corny films, it's about time we had a film that's fun and action-packed. Everyone I know who's seen it so far has LOVED it, and I hope this opens the door for not just studios but for the fanbase to be able to look beyond historic dramas and silly rom-coms, and for an even larger demographic of moviegoers to be able to watch a film with a majority Black cast without race having to be such a major factor. If garbage like Sucker Punch, Splice, and Scott Pilgrim vs The World can make it to the majors, then it's high time a film like Red Tails got its chance to shine, regardless of its historical significance.

  • dreameagle | January 22, 2012 1:32 PMReply

    my father was a crew chief with the Tuskeegee Airmen; he rarely spoke about it, but believe me when i tell you what little he did say about the racism and hatred of those times would curl every hair on your body;

    if John Ford and John Wayne had done this movie, EVERYBODY, including this Maltin clown, would be raving it was an instant classic, like "The Flying Leathernecks" or "Jet Pilot"--the latter being some of the most vapid propagandistic anti-Communist tripe ever contrived, which is what you'd expect from a movie made with Howard Hughes' money;

    but of course, both those movies contained the prototypical Hollywood hottie of the time--and almost no minorities whatsoever, unless you count servants;

    well now flash forward a lifetime and still critics like this one cannot stand a group of strong black leads, one of which lands the Hollywood hottie (and she is a knockout)--a "crime" everyone in the theatre knew had to be "punished" by his demise;

    "one-dimensional" Germans?

    ask anyone who survived Normandy how "well-developed" the German characters were on the beaches, any Jew who survived the camps how "well-rounded" the SS and camp guards were...anyone think the pilots were any less psychotic?

    you couldn't make a movie about how bad it really was for the Tuskeegee Airmen or Patton's Black Panthers he originally rejected (and who were not seen in one single frame of the movie "Patton"), because no one would believe you who wasn't there or related to the black pilots and ground crews;

    you want to see a bad movie? go watch "Titanic", which sank not because of the iceberg so much as the inital attempts to barricade the "lower class" passengers below decks so the "upper crust" could get to the lifeboats first--but somehow, that never comes up in three hours of movie;

    "Red Tails" may not be perfect, Leonard, but it's good enough for the remaining Tuskeegee Airmen--and that's good enough for me...and one day it will be a classic;

  • Debbie Saraceno | February 5, 2012 12:49 PM

    Very well said.!!

  • G | January 22, 2012 9:20 AMReply

    Tom, the point is Lucas wanted Red Tails to be "hokey and cliched"

    Of course he could have made it as a serious social commentery about race and racism, but instead he decided to give the african carribean community something they've hitherto been denied - Their own Dambusters, Memphis Belle, Top Gun, etc...

    It'll be interesting to see what happens if Lucas ever decides to go back and do the Prequel focusing more on the racism faced by the Tuskagees before they fought in the war. If he does, what do you bet everyone complains that its boring and not exciting enough? :^O

  • chaimyamin | January 21, 2012 7:14 PMReply

    Leonard Maltin is almost dead-on accurate with his assessment of how good or bad a movie is. I am not going to a movie that I wont like and spend nealy $20 by the time I have bought tickets, popcorn, coke etc. I am a big fan of the World War II genre and I am a person who strongly believes that the story of the Tuskeegee Airmen should be told. It seemed to me that Lucas was the man to make the movie for it. But when four of the movie critics whose opinion I respect the most tell me that this movie is not worth seeing, I am not spending the money to see it in the theatre. I will wait until it comes out on DVD or see it for free on YouTube.

  • Jacquie Young | January 21, 2012 6:57 PMReply

    Stop.........The story needs to be told, again, and again, and again! Quit being so negative. It is a rich part of American (not just Black) history that needs to be told. I loved the movie

  • chuck | January 21, 2012 12:03 PMReply

    IF YOU THINK GOD IS GOING TO ALLOW THE NEW JEWS AND GAY HOLLYWOOD TO MISTREAT HIS PEOPLE THIS WAY,JUST WAIT AND SEE. THERE IS NO REASON FOR THIS IN 2012. You have nothing to fear form the negro people. You are all from the Negro race,we are all Negros tranformed as we are the also the choosen Original Jews of the Father but fear GOD.

  • Tom | January 21, 2012 3:23 PM

    Thanks for chiming in, Chuck. Time for you and your kind to die so that the rest of the human race can evolve into something less primitive than what you'd have us be.

  • alfred | January 21, 2012 9:53 AMReply

    Hey-Lucas was on THE DAILY SHOW and said it sucked and that if they make the top ten theres better movies on the way.

  • Al | January 24, 2012 7:01 AM

    HA!! The director and producer of this movie is in agreement with the critics about "Red Tails." Maybe he himself is in on DreamEagle's conspiracy.

  • BT | January 21, 2012 6:09 AMReply

    You know, of all the reivewers attacking this movie I notice a pattern. There's of course the predictable throw-away lines about "The Tuskeegee Airmen deserve a great movie," then they all go on to attack this film as if it were Scott Pilgrim or something.
    So the first line is clearly a dodge to give cover for how they really feel. I get the impression these reviews were written long before these people saw the movie. They just waited for the film to come out so they could splice in a few specific scenes/bits of dialogue that they could hang their attack piece on.

    I also noticed that for all the open-minded white reviewers who try to hide their blatant biases behind their so-brief-its-almost-nonexistent perfunctory laudatory intros, that not one of them has said that they personally were anticipating this movie.
    This film was in development for 20 years. George Lucas passion project. The only WW2-themed movie to come out in some time (unless you want to call Captain America a WW2 film), and it's the only one that doesn't feature the same shopworn, tired-as-hell cliched white guys (yes, I'm talking about Band of Brothers and Pacific, both stale as year-old oatmeal) pretending like they're single-handedly saving the world.
    And not one of these white reviewers was anticipating it?
    And not surprisingly, all of them attack the film, and they can't even be bothered to use an original format for their hit-pieces. The way they're written, the words they use, these "reviews" all seem like they were written by the same person, only the by-line was changed.
    Now THAT says more about the people who are attacking this film than anything.

  • Alex | January 21, 2012 11:19 PM

    I just got back from seeing it, and believe me, the reviewers are being EXTREMELY generous in their reviews(probably in deference to the subject matter). This was absolutely the worst movie I have seen in a very long time. The acting from everyone other than the main 2-3 characters was so bad that it would stick out as bad even in a high school play. The dialogue was so bad it defies belief. The screenplay was terrible - the plot starts in the middle of the story and ends in the late middle. The love story was devoid of all emotion (and logic! they fall in love without being able to talk to each other!?!).

    They should immediately pull this movie out of theaters and replace it with the 1995 HBO movie version, which was excellent.

  • chaimyamin | January 21, 2012 7:57 PM

    Yep...that's what really happened, wasn't it? Niel Gabler, Michael Medved, Roger Ebert, Geoffery Lyons, Leonard Maltin ALL got together in conspiracy to pan "Red Tails" because the heroes were not of the right race. Niel Gabler and Roger Ebert would particularly be upset with that insinuation. Could it be that"The Red Tails" really is not all that good? That it doesn't come up to the cinematic expectations of a movie like...."Glory?" One critic said it didn't come up to the standard of "The Walking Dead." I plan to watch "Red Tails," but as I stated on an earlier post, I'll wait till it comes out on DVD or on NetFlix.com. Shalom!

  • Norm | January 21, 2012 12:53 AMReply

    Look, up in the sky..Is it a Bird...A Plane...No..It is Cuba Gooding jr., AGAIN...Anyone want to give this actor a break...

  • Tom | January 21, 2012 3:29 PM

    Okay....my reply was SUPPOSED to be in response to BT. Sorry, Norm.

  • Tom | January 21, 2012 3:28 PM

    While I understand what you're saying in your comment, I have to agree with the majority of the poor reviews this film has gotten. The HBO film "The Tuskegee Airmen" was a FAR better depiction of what these men had to fight their way through (both in the air and on the ground) in order to prove their worth and earn the respect they were due. "Red Tails", for all the work George Lucas may have put into it, comes off as hokey and cliched.

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