While Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan helped define the style of a modern day war film it was his HBO mini-series Band of Brothers that truly captured the World War II experience. The multi-part saga dealt with every nook and cranny of the US military's involvement in the war from large scale battles to intimate character details. The new movie Red Tails developed and produced by Spielberg's Indiana Jones collaborator and Star Wars mastermind George Lucas attempts to cover the same ground for the sprawling tale of the Tuskegee Airmen—albeit in a two hour compressed form. The result is a messy handling of a powerful story of heroism. The good intentions make it on to the screen...but the drama never gets off the runway.
Red Tails assembles a talented cast of young actors to portray the brave men of the 332nd Fighter Group a faction of the Tuskegee Airmen. The ensemble is reduced to a jumble of simplistic one-note characterizations: Easy (Nate Parker) the do-gooder with a dark past; Lightning (David Oyelowo) the suave rebel who never listens to orders; Junior (Tristan Wilds) the fresh-faced newbie ready for a good fight; and the rest a nameless group of underwritten yes men all with just enough backstory to make you interested but never satisfied. Thankfully with the little material they have to work with the gentlemen excel. Rapper-turned-actor Ne-Yo is a standout as the quick-witted Smokey overshadowing vets Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. (who spends most of the movie chomping on a corn cob pipe and grinning).
With the plethora of characters comes too many plot threads and Red Tails stuffs its runtime with everything from epic flyboy dog fights romantic interludes (Lightning finds himself infatuated with a local Italian woman) office politics alcoholism and even a POW camp escape. If there was a true lead character the movie may have succeeded in stringing the events together in a coherent narrative but instead Red Tails is choppy and uneven. The aerial battles for all their CG special effects nastiness are incredibly exhilarating but when the movie's not tackling the intensity of a battle (which it does often) it comes to a near halt. That mostly comes down to history standing in the way—the crux of the story focuses on how segregation caused the military's higher ups to avoid utilizing the Red Tails in true battle. Meaning there's a lot of talk on how the team should be fighting as opposed to actually doing it.Director Anthony Hemingway tries to do this important historical milestone justice but the execution flies too low even under made-for-TV movie standards. Red Tails is a dull history lesson occasionally spruced up with Lucas' eye for action. The charisma of the the main set of actors goes a long way in keeping the film tolerable but they can't fill the gaping hole where the emotional hook belongs. This is a movie about heroes yet not once are the filmmakers able to pull off a moment that feels remotely brave. Which is unfortunate—as it's a story of the utmost importance.
We are first introduced to our bushy-haired redhead friend Napoleon (Jon Heder) in a vintage unicorn T-shirt dangling a superhero action figure out the window of his school bus. When his much younger friend asks "What are you going to do today Napoleon?" our protagonist's first words are marked with an attitude that is unmatched by anybody other than Napoleon himself "Whatever I feel like!" Napoleon and his chat room surfing brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) 31 with braces live with their biker grandma (Sandy Martin) until she's injured quad running at the dunes and Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) comes to babysit. Dynamite becomes the campaign manager for the class presidency of his best friend a new Mexican student named Pedro (Efren Ramirez) handing out key chains made by expert friendship bracelet-maker Deb (Tina Majorino). Dynamite also wins over the likes of Trisha (Emily Kennard) with a personal drawing of her that took forever he winsomely says "to finish the shading on her upper lip"; wears a vintage suit to his school dance; and injures his scrotum with a time machine purchased on the Internet. If this proud geek wasn't being kicked during class and pushed into lockers after he could just as easily be considered the coolest dork in town.
Jon Heder masters the coolness of weird and the awkwardness of youth through his social reject Napoleon Dynamite. Heder certainly has the open-mouthed squinty-eyed spectacle-clad doofus down to a T. From breaking an excessive sweat after practicing dance moves in his room to throwing fruit at his Uncle Rico to showing a pent-up rage while dancing for Pedro's candidacy speech Heder does every little thing with a resentful anger that makes his performance unforgettable and oh so laughable. As dazzling as he is alone Heder's act benefits when complemented by his equally outrageous costars. Ruell does a notable job portraying the fragility of his character Kip perfectly displaying the transition from computer geek to ghetto superstar thanks to new girlfriend LaFawnduh (Shondrella Avery). Gries is Uncle Rico--his constant nostalgic comments about his chance to "make State" in high school football in 1982 really start to get on your nerves. But Majorino takes the cake for the hilarity with which she depicts her character down to her hairstyles outfits jobs and hobbies. Her character Deb is eerily reminiscent of Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) from 1995's dork homage Welcome to the Dollhouse. One of the most attractive things about the movie is the organic love story that unfolds as Napoleon and Deb realize that they're in fact two peas in a pod.
Jared Hess directs Dynamite written by him and wife Jerusha. This movie is his baby as his only other directing and production credits include Peluca 2003's 9-minute short film focused on the character of Napoleon Dynamite then dubbed Seth. Without special effects or an expensive budget Dynamite will blow you away with its simple cinematography paralleled by the plain rural town in which the movie is set. Each of his characters has a specific quirky personality that they stay true to every minute on camera. Dynamite's Deb seems to look to Welcome to the Dollhouse's Dawn for fashion and boy advice. The two films are geek anthems that are both pathetic and inspiring at the same time. Just as Dollhouse reached its peak with a fuming Dawn marching over to her male obsession and releasing her rage over years of being unaccepted Dynamite reaches a whole new peak with the curiously angry Napoleon putting on an emotional dance performance in front of his victim of choice--the entire student body class.