Red Tails opens with a morality play of sorts, set in the sky over Europe in 1943. A few German fighters draw off the P-51 escorts from a bomber raid, and the main German force, led by a lean, hungry fellow in a plane with a yellow nose, falls on the olive-drab B-17s. “Show no mercy!” the German leader intones melodramatically, and the Bf109s don’t, shredding the column. “Where are our escorts?” the helpless bomber crews cry as they die in droves.
Obviously, they need something better.
That something better comes along as the Red Tails, the 332nd Fighter Group, a segregated unit with black pilots and ground personnel. They prove their worth with obsolete P-40s, then get the real star of the movie, the P-51D Mustang.
Ultimately they overcome Nazis and racism, but mostly racism, to be the Best Fighter Unit Ever. Music up, roll titles.
This is not the first movie telling the story — or part of the story — of the Tuskegee Airmen, or, at least, the 332nd Fighter Group (there were also Tuskegee B-25 medium bomber units, but they didn’t go overseas). The first movie was in 1945 and was narrated by some B-movie actor named Ronald. The best is probably the 1995 The Tuskegee Airmen, but it can’t hold a candle to the budget, dramatic fighting scenes and enormously improved CGI of Red Tails. It just tells the story better and less crudely.
Acting and Production
The actors are generally very good — a lot better than the script, anyway. They do their best to sell characters who are, unfortunately, just black versions of the Standard Hollywood Combat Squad. The Doomed Religious Guy, the Guy Who Falls In Love With a War Bride, the Guy Who’s Too Insubordinate For His Own Good, The Guy Whose Fear Drives Him To Drink — all, Now Available in Black! It’s not the actors’ fault. They have a piss-poor, not to mention stone-cold-dead, script to bring to life, and they’re just good actors, not Dr. von Frankenstein.
Bryan Cranston’s substantial talents are wasted in a cartoon-villain role as the White Man who’s Keepin’ The Brotherman Down. In general, white Americans are the real enemy and the Germans are just business.
The script probably has its moments, although we can’t remember any. What we remember are over-the-top action scenes and moribund dialogue.
One rather interesting choice the producers made was to have the Germans speak German — without subtitles. This risk works; there’s no problem for a non-German-speaker understanding the gist of their communication, and it adds to the sense that you are on one side, not the other, in this war.
The action sequences are visually and audibly exciting, as long as they keep the music down. But even those scenes break the suspension of disbelief when, in an early combat with Me109s, the green 332nd pilots tearing into a phalanx of the Luftwaffe’s elite, somehow drugged into suicidal zombie mooks by an overdose of Scriptium. It’s hard to be excited by something that has telegraphed that there will be no subtlety or surprise. The producer, Steven Spielberg of all people, apparently has lost faith in his audiences and believes they must be conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs. We hope that he is wrong.
We often mention the score when it displays conspicuous merit, or adds something to the film. In this case, let’s not.
Finally, at about two hours, the movie is somewhere between a half hour and two hours too long.
Accuracy and Weapons
In the 1950s and 1960s, little effort was taken to depict the weapons and war machines accurately or even realistically, in detail. Instead producers concentrated on characters and script. Today, the production values are reversed, with detail minutiae often nailed down painstakingly while the characters are shallow and wooden, and the dialog a pastiche of some other movies’ tropes and clichés.
Because the good guys are the good guys, they’re nearly immune to enemy fire. As mentioned above, on their first encounter with seasoned German fighter pilots, they shoot down a half-dozen without serious loss to themselves, despite flying an obsolete and outclassed airplane at the time (P-40E or F).
The actions of the characters are often ridiculous. At one point, after noting that they’re just about out of fuel and would be violating orders to do it, several of the men follow a damaged (burning, actually) German back to his base, because, otherwise, who would know where that base was? Apparently, whatever they taught a fighter pilot in 1944 it did not include anything about the existence of air or air-order-of-battle intelligence.
Moreover, the story’s point that the way to defeat the Germans was to stick close to the bombers, regardless, flies in the face of all that was known in 1944 about fighter escort tactics.
The CGI is in places brilliant, and in a few places crude.
It’s 2014, and bad guys still wear the equivalent of black hats. So that you know that the one German bad guy is really a bad guy, almost as bad as the white American officers, he has a specially painted plane. In fact, his Me109G bears the black-green/dark-green camouflage of the Bf109E of the Battle of Britain period, with a yellow nose lifted from the “Abbeville boys” or Eastern Front practice.
That’s not all. There’s also a broad yellow stripe on the tail because the producers assume you’re a purblind idiot who didn’t see the enormous yellow schnoz on this thing.
The CGI made us wonder if the movie industry is picking up some technology from the more-advanced game industry. Unfortunately, they’re still getting their scripts from the less-advanced comic-book industry.
The bottom line
Red Tails is not really bad. As we said, the actors put their heart into it, and the CGI, sets, props, and costumes were done with care. The photography is sometimes beautiful. But the story is weak as water, and given that they started with a great story of World War II that is proven to put heinies in theater seats, what they did here is just disappointing. So we recommend the ’95 one with Laurence Fishburne, despite the ’12 one’s good performance by Cuba Gooding Jr.
For more information
These sites relate to this particular film.
- Amazon.com DVD page:
- IMDB page:
- IMFDB page (there are some great screen shots and comments here. The flare gun used to launch the fighters is a German one — we missed that):
- Rotten Tomatoes review page:
- Wikipedia page:
Kevin was a former Special Forces weapons man (MOS 18B, before the 18 series, 11B with Skill Qualification Indicator of S). His focus was on weapons: their history, effects and employment. He started WeaponsMan.com in 2011 and operated it until he passed away in 2017. His work is being preserved here at the request of his family.