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.
The human race doesn't see it coming. It isn't a comet a war a virus nuclear bombs or terrorism that brings us down. It's simply running out of gas on Aug. 12 2012. Suddenly the world becomes divided between the hunted and the hunters. In this case the young people are known as Foragers and they've holed themselves up in a large empty hospital while outside hang the Rovers ready to cook them up. The Rovers are run by brutal renegades with names like Jackal (Michael Madsen) Viper (Michael Kelly) and Mongrel (Vinnie Jones) and when the Foragers take in a newcomer Neon (Rachel Miner) a band of Rovers are hot on her tail. They stalk the young meat holed up in the hospital and shout "We can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way but by sunrise we'll be gnawing on your bones." Comforting. When a frightened Miner as Neon talks about how the Rovers are going to "to cook one of us” every night she does it with a straight face. She's the post-apocalyptic Gretel of the fairytale Hansel & Gretel and they have to figure out how to outsmart the witch--or in this case the posse of cannibals--outside their door. There’s lots of full-throttle screaming and the actors get to wear cool Viking outfits and suits of armor. Madsen is typically over-the-top in the vicious role but no one would dare tone him down not even Quentin Tarantino. Director/writer Mark Young makes a stand-out cannibal film. Cannibals wearing war paint and other battle accoutrements brandishing large knives and scythes while some of them walk around with half-eaten skulls it’s all quite effective. These characters are killing machines who can talk back which makes them even more frightening. Young balances the camp and horror perfectly so ultimately Tooth & Nail is a good scare.