Here's the link to the published version of my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:
Red Tails (2012)
“Red Tails” is an attempt to tell the tale of the brave African-American squadron of fighter pilots who flew multiple missions during World War II. It’s a tale that deserves to be told, but it’s also one that deserves better treatment than the filmmakers give it here, because the way it’s presented in this film, you would think that they aren’t taking the subject particularly seriously.
Stationed in Italy in 1944, a group of African-American pilots are given flying missions that the government deems are a good fit for them, such as attacking very small targets like trucks and trains, because they don’t trust them with anything of more importance. They are led by Col. Bullard (Terrence Howard), who is constantly trying to convince the brass that they are capable of so much more.
They are finally given their chance when they are assigned a mission that requires them to provide air cover for a beach landing. It also gives them their first taste of actual combat against the Germans. The mission is quite successful, allowing them to get assigned other important missions that involve protecting bomber planes. This eventually leads to a mission that has them defending bombers attempting a run on Berlin itself.
One of the first things to stick out about “Red Tails” was how bad some of the acting was. This isn’t to say that all of the performers were all bad, but several of them were. In the opening scene, right away we get a taste of this, which shows that the subject is not really being taken seriously. Certain line deliveries are cringe-worthy and give you the sense that you’re watching something really cheesy.
However, what brings the film down even more are the completely flat characters. Honestly, aside from a few nicknames, I couldn’t tell you a single thing about any of them. None of the characters are developed in the least, so what ends up happening to them becomes quite inconsequential to the audience. It really tells you something about the characters in the film when the biggest emotional reaction you have to one of them getting hurt is a sarcastic “Oh no… that guy!”
The screenplay is another big problem. Some of the line readings are cringe-worthy simply because some of the performances are bad, but also because it seems like the script was written by someone who just couldn’t come up with engaging dialogue. The structure of it also comes off as quite strange. In between the story of the Red Tails, as they eventually come to be called because of the red tails on their planes, a love story is thrown in that goes absolutely nowhere and is left completely undeveloped.
One of the best things the filmmakers could have done would have been to cut out the love story entirely. This would have made the film feel at least a little tighter than it was. As it stands, it runs a bloated two hours, which is a long time to go when you don’t really care about the characters or what happens to them.
Adding to this issue is the pacing. Most of the film is composed of airplane fights, which are entertaining for a little while, but then become quite tedious after staring at them for such a long time. I’m guessing the main reason for the love story was to allow a break from all these scenes of planes flying around, and it probably would have been a good distraction had they taken the time to develop the relationship. Another way of doing it would have been to develop some of the pilots to the point where we know enough about them to form a connection. That way, we’d actually be concerned as they fly these dangerous missions, making these scenes feel less tedious.
There certainly is an interesting story to be told at the heart of “Red Tails,” but unfortunately director Anthony Hemingway (in his big screen debut) and screenwriters John Ridley and Aaron McGruder (neither of whom had experience in writing a feature screenplay) couldn’t get at it. The lack of experience here could help explain quite a lot. Perhaps one day someone will give the story of the Red Tails the treatment it deserves. 2/4 stars.