Oli Templeton, 1:00 pm, Tuesday, 26 June, 2012Follow @TheWestLondoner
Thrilling aerial action but not much else
Three Stars: ***
With two underslung engine pods, swept wings and a nose full of heavy cannons, the shark-shaped Messerschmitt 262 is eerily reminiscent of some of the high-tech starfighters which feature in other Lucasfilms.
Of course, these very fast, very temperamental, and very German aircraft were a very real weapon of war; a far-cry from the imagined alien designs which feature in Star Wars. They were the first jet fighter ever to see combat. A significant mile-stone in aviation history. It was fantastic to see one finally featured in a war film.
And there was no better place to showcase them than here, in this most explosive of air war adventures! Of course, Red Tails is about much more than the Army Air Force’s first encounter with the early jets.
It is the incredible tale of how proud men stood up against hundreds of years of prejudice and oppression, to become respected for the human beings they really were. Originally considered too inferior to be pilots, African American men were given a chance to prove themselves when these views were challenged and an “experiment” was put in place: the first all-black fighter squadron, which became known as The Tuskegee Airmen.
This is not only a tale about the fight in the air, but also the constant battle against the squadron’s own sceptical top brass, who wish to disband them due to a poor combat record. Of course, the fact that their unfair strategy is responsible (they equipped the squadron with outdated P-40 fighters and placed the squadron a hundred miles behind the front line, where they were simply unable to score any kills in the first place), is “conveniently” lost on them.
Ultimately, Red Tails could be considered a reboot of HBO’s The Tuskegee Airmen (starring both a young Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding Jnr). Released in 1995, it is fairly dated now, but it tells the same story, albeit a more historically faithful version.
One scene featuring B-17 pilots meeting up with their saviours (at this stage of the war Red Tails were escorting the vulnerable bombers to their targets) only to have a life-time of bigoted idealism challenged and replaced with deserved respect, is particularly memorable and satisfying to watch. The same thing also happens in Lucas’ retelling but, along with many other scenes, it is rife with melodramatics and lacks the humbled quality of its predecessor.
In fact, George Lucas’ version seems to be mainly about blowing things out of the sky. And in all guilty honesty, that is the main reason I went to see it. I wanted to see how his cinematic touch would fair in the historical context of the air war.
After all, the skirmishes between the X-Wings and TIE Fighters of the Star Wars saga were inspired by real-life dogfights between Allied and Axis pilots. Lucas even screened an unfinished showing of his original sci-fi film, replacing unfinished scenes with that of gun camera footage, due to the uncanny similarities.
And in portraying the air war he certainly excels. Provided you are just happy to sit back and watch the fighter boys in their brand new P-51 Mustangs tangle with the Messerschmitts, clawing each other out of the sky amid a hail storm of tracer bullets and flak, while B-17 bombers disintegrate all around, this will go down well with you.
In many ways, it was much like watching the battles from Star Wars. The cinematography is almost identical, with plenty of gun-sight perspective views and fly-bys, with twists and turns through the high-octane chases. Even some of the sound effects were similar. I could swear that the effect they used for the scream of an overly-strained engine had been recycled from a podrace.
Sadly the parallels with his previous works don’t end there. The same negative aspects which ruined the prequel trilogy are all too evident, casting further doubt on his ability to make a solidly good film in the modern-era. While the skies are ablaze with amazing visuals, the ground scenes suffer from a weak plot which never seems to spend enough time on one character, offering only a snapshot of their lives.
In their version, HBO used characters that were composites of real-life pilots, and we followed them from their home-life and through their training. But the cast of Red Tails don’t even seem to have much of a backstory, if one at all. They simply are.
And it’s not like they are a boring bunch either: there is an alcoholic, a joker, a plucky scholar, an advocate of “Black Jesus” and a pipe-chomping Cuba Gooding Jnr to lead them all. Alas, we never really get to know them, so when the inevitable occurs, and some of them perish, the emotional impact is somewhat limited.
Dialogue is pretty poor too, and as bad as Attack of the Clones in some places (as if anything could be worse than that), although some of the banter is quite amusing at times. At other times it is downright cringe-worthy, especially the villainous nonsense spouted by the evil German pilot, which wouldn’t have been out of place in a Commando Comic.
Then again, this is hardly an intelligent war movie. It is more akin to the old-fashioned type of film that Lucas himself probably grew up watching, where the bad guys were pretty much the devil incarnate, who might tie distressed damsels to railway tracks at the weekend.
And in many ways it is just as well that we see these Nazis scuttling around their airfields and battleships, like the unthinking henchmen in a Bond film, because the killing appetites of our heroic squadron are insatiable. There are strafing runs galore upon trucks, trains and grounded planes, accompanied by whoops and cheers from the Americans. But all this is justified because they are the good guys, it is as simple as that.
A battle between good and evil: perhaps the single most notable theme which occurs in all of Mr Lucas’ films. Of course, the most important factor is that good always prevails over evil. For that reason, this really was like watching Star Wars, but not so long ago, and actually quite near, taking place on the same planet we are sitting on.
Of course, in World War II there were heroes and villains on both sides, so you can imagine that some historical accuracy will have been sacrificed in the portrayal of a soulless enemy. Yet, treated as an action adventure, with its incredible special effects and bravado, Red Tails does manage to summon up a return to one of those classic tales of daring do and can be enjoyed on such a level.
Just don’t forget the reality behind the story. And for that reason, I really do suggest that you grab a copy of the HBO version, to get a true appreciation of the significance behind this marvellous tale of human endeavour.