War may be Hell, but it’s hard to imagine anything more hellish than watching Cuba Gooding Jr. girn his way through his embarrassing performance in Red Tails, a WWII blockbuster currently on wide release and screening at United Artists Berkeley 7.
As he chomps maniacally on a pipe, Cuba seems to be channeling the spirit of Popeye through his character: fictional Tuskegee Airman Emanuelle Stance. Happily, the rest of Red Tails’ cast does a better job — but the film itself is closer in spirit to a cartoon than it is to a serious portrayal of the wartime accomplishments of the Army Air Corps’ 332nd Fighter Group.
Produced by George Lucas, apparently still doing penance for bringing Jar Jar Binks into the world, Red Tails begins where it probably should have ended — over the skies of Italy in 1944. There’s little effort to put the story of the Tuskegee Airmen into context: they appear as a fully formed military unit and (bar one stereotypical brass hat) little is seen of the War Department’s efforts to sidetrack the Congressionally mandated Tuskegee program. The film forgoes this rich vein of backstory and suffers as a result.
Co-written by John Ridley and Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder, Red Tails’ screenplay lacks not only historical context, but also focus and cohesion, as it juggles countless sub-plots that rarely go anywhere interesting. McGruder’s cartoon background is apparent: much of the dialogue would work better in single-frame speech bubbles than in a motion picture scene, where believable give and take between characters is essential.
Producer Lucas, however, is a master of CGI action, and that’s what you get by the bucket load in Red Tails. Though no fan of CGI, I’ll grudgingly grant its necessity in a film about World War II aerial warfare: better a fleet of animated B-17 Flying Fortresses and ME-262s than an unconvincing handful of repros or restorations, I suppose. The film is peppered with impressive dogfights, as the lads of the 332nd joust with the nasty Nazis, exemplified, naturally, by a blonde, blue-eyed devil nicknamed ‘Pretty Boy’ (Lars van Riesen) who scowls a lot. He’s the Darth Vader of the Luftwaffe, right down to his wicked awesome scar.
Thankfully, rookie director Anthony Hemingway manages to get a few good performances out of his cast. Most noteworthy is Terrence Howard’s grim-visaged turn as unit commander A.J. Bullard: though burdened with portentous dialogue, Howard still manages to deliver his lines with power and subtlety. I haven’t seen 2005’s Hustle and Flow, but I guess his Academy Award nomination was well deserved. Andre Royo’s portrayal of grounds crewman Coffee Coleman is also commendable, and hip-hop artists Ne-Yo and Method Man don’t embarrass themselves in smaller supporting roles.
If you’re looking for an old-fashioned war movie, Red Tails fits the bill. Just don’t expect to learn anything about the Tuskegee Airmen — and don’t expect Howard to earn another Oscar nom.
Footnote: It’s never good when a historical drama reminds you of a sitcom. The presence of Major Dad star Gerald McRaney — here playing an Army Air Corps general — may be a considerable distraction for some viewers. You’ve been warned.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.
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