Red Tails [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (29th July 2012).
The Film

When “Red Tails” was gearing up for its theatrical release earlier this year, George Lucas made the rounds on the late night TV circuit talking about his 23-year-long struggle to get the picture made. Appearing on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" (1996-Present), Lucas explained that every studio passed on the picture—which he ultimately financed himself—because it featured an all black cast, with few name actors in major roles. That might be true. It’s probably true, at least in part. But I wonder if Lucas ever considered another reason why no one wanted to make the movie as he envisioned: because it’s a seriously flawed film as conceived and completed. Bad? Not exactly… just definitely not as good as it could, and should, have been.

“Red Tails” is an ill-imagined take on the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American air squadron in the United States Army Air Corps, eventually deployed to protect and escort B-25 bombers to their targets during World War II. The airmen are famous for valiantly battling two wars: a war against fascism and the Nazi’s in Europe, and racism and their bigoted countrymen at home. Certainly, the airmen’s is a story worth telling. It’s a story that’s already been told, in point of fact, many times, perhaps best in the HBO TV movie “The Tuskegee Airmen” (1995), starring Laurence Fishburne and a very young Cuba Gooding Jr. in a supporting role.

Why Lucas’ approach to the worthy subject is… well, wrong, is simple. He makes the mistake in assuming that a) people don’t really care about facts or history and b) that because they don’t, he can completely make up whatever he wants—characters, events, even a world where the racism that the pilots faced day-in-and-day-out is greatly diminished. Ol’ George is probably at least a little right about people not being too concerned with facts, accurate statistics and, you know, real history… but is that majority really going to be interested in “Red Tails”? Maybe. But if they see it, they’ll likely blindly accept most of the falsities—inaccuracies, simplified situations, and the horribly cliché and totally fabricated characters—as fact. Which is wrong. And, as someone who does care about history, I have a problem with it.

I’m not just snatching something out of the sky to complain about either; Lucas has made other comments (in that interview above even) about how he wants “Red Tails” to teach young teens about the heroes of yesteryear so they have role models to look up to, because such figures are so lacking today. That’s noble, George. And I’ll admit, the fact that Lucas wanted to tell the Tuskegee story at all—and wished to reach such a wide audience—and even that, when the major studios turned him down, he plowed ahead and made the movie anyway, with his own money, because he wanted to present this story, is actually pretty cool. But I’m still deeply disappointed in the execution of the film, perhaps even more so because of these noble intentions. Simply put, as a historical record the film doesn’t work. (Fortunately, the included documentary on this Blu-ray, “Double Victory: The Tuskegee Airmen at War”, does that job and it does it well).

Okay, maybe every film based on a true story doesn’t have to be too concerned with getting everything right. Fictionalization and adaptation have their places solidly secure in the filmmaking toolkit, too, and are usually the best way to tell a tale. But it’s a shame that this particular fictionalized take on Tuskegee (written by John Ridley and Aaron “Boondocks” McGruder, adapted from a book by John B. Holway) is bland, base and distilled to a series of tense action scenes and little else. I’d have no problem with the fudged facts, exactly, if the form in which the facts are presented weren’t so ordinary, so plain—predictable, trite and formulaic.

The story of Tuskegee is one of heroes and heroics; men who fought a long and tiring war on two fronts. A war abroad—where they ran dangerous strafing runs in Italy, blowing up trucks and trains in worn-out Curtiss P-40 Warkawk planes, before working their way up to bomber escorts to Berlin in their shiny P-51 Mustangs with a signature red-painted tail (hence the name). And a war at home, where certain high-ranking military officials told them they were inferior beings, not smart enough or fit enough to fly and the squadron was constantly on the verge of being disbanded. The real Tuskegee Airmen included such esteemed men as Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the first African American general in the US Airforce, George S. “Spanky” Roberts, and Roger Terry. The latter took a stand against segregation when he was turned away from the Freeman Army Airfield officers club for being black—even though a “whites only” policy was against Army code—and was eventually court-martialed and dishonorably discharged for his actions; just one of the many injustices carried out before the tides finally started to turn in the wake of the civil rights movement. (The court-martial was eventually overturned in the 1990's, and his record restored, only about 60 years too late).

“Red Tails” isn’t about any of these actual men or the real events in which they were a part; even though it’d probably be a hundred times more interesting if it were. Instead, Lucas, director-for-hire Anthony Hemingway and writers Ridley and McGruder have created amalgams of the airmen, defined mostly by cliché and tired troubles seen in a dozen genre entries before, and place them in situations that are more like generic overviews of historical events, and not at all the important milestones some of them were.

In Lucas’ version, the squadron leader is Martin “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker)—he’s an alcoholic. The hotshot ace in the group, Easy’s best friend and the guy, who, funnily enough, won’t take orders, is Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo), and he’s forced into a subplot where he falls for an Italian woman named Sofia. The youngest, Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds) has a Buck Rogers blaster that he keeps for good luck, and wants everyone to stop treating him like a kid and to call him Raygun! He gets shot down behind enemy lines and ends up in a POW camp; everyone assumes he’s dead. But Raygun mounts an escape with the other, white, prisoners who openly accept him as part of their group almost at first introduction (the German guards, of course, make all of the vile comments about him being black; they’re the villains, remember). The other pilots in the troupe—Samuel “Joker” George (Elijah Kelley), Andrew “Smoky” Salem (Ne-Yo), Leon “Neon” Edwards (Kevin Philips) and the others—are less important to the overall plot, as though there to fill out the cast with more wartime archetypes. The first three men and their respective storylines take up most of the runtime not devoted to dogfights, with Major Emmanuelle Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.) leading the men in training, and Colonel A.J Bullard (Terence Howard) in Washington, fighting for the squadron’s right to say airborne, each getting less than a dozen minutes apiece in there somewhere too.

It’s a pretty picture, and “Red Tails” certainly looks very nice, with almost Technicolor visuals supplied by cinematographer John B. Aronson and Industrial Light & Magic. But in nearly every other way, the film is weak. The script is littered with truly atrocious dialogue (the very first line in the movie is, “Germans! Let’s get ‘em!” and rarely does it improve beyond that). The characters are woefully undeveloped, given generic traits and forced into standard storylines from other war movies (it’s one part “Top Gun” (1987), another part “Stalag 17” (1953) and several other memorable war movies, all in one). The war, for racial equality, at home is skimmed over, confined to a few brief scenes between Col. Bullard and a pathetically prejudiced major played by Bryan Cranston. A handful of other lines on the European front are split between Nazi’s and a few bar patrons; hardly the underhanded and outrageous truth, but rather almost seemingly excused by the fact that the Nazis are bad guys, and the drunk American soldiers, are, well, drunk. For the most part, the whole racial element seems if not almost completely swept under the rug, still greatly diminished (Why—some mild revisionist history? Overzealous political correctness?) The tone is terrible too; at times somber and serious, at others giddy with German-killing-glee. The serious scenes are stilted and the action scenes ornate, but hampered by frequent in your face shots of the actors obviously in front of green screen.

The director’s card in the opening titles may say Anthony Hemingway—who makes his feature debut with this film—but he was busy filming the first season of the HBO series “Treme” (2010-present) when Lucas took “Red Tails” into re-shoots in late 2009. With Hemingway obviously occupied directing a TV show, Lucas himself stepped behind the camera; how much of the film as finished is Lucas? No idea, although I’ll say a great deal of it feels like “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” (2005). With the bad lines of dialogue delivered by actors (most of whom have done good work elsewhere) giving wooden performances, certain shots that look almost entirely artificial and soundstage-y, and misplaced pulpy tropes of 40's and early 50's filmmaking, “Red Tails” feels like a “Star Wars” prequel, and much of it smacks of modern lazy Lucas-ness, which is a big part of why it doesn’t work. (Part of the reason why Lucas’ newer films don’t have the same bite as his earlier works—“THX-1138” (1971) and “American Graffiti” (1973), especially—is because Lucas transitioned over time from a filmmaker interested in the art of moviemaking and storytelling, to a technician more concerned with advancing the tools of the trade).

Then again, the other reason, maybe the main reason—and this is Lucas’ fault entirely, because he admits to it in press interviews (seriously, just watch the "Daily Show" clip if you haven’t; it’s not even 10 minutes long)—is the overly simplified, Old Hollywood direction he consciously took the picture in. “Red Tails” is a slice of patriotic pie, where America is (to borrow an amazing phrase from Aaron Sorkin’s new show, “The Newsroom” (2012)) Star Spangled Awesome. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad. The main villain is a Nazi pilot—a gruff Aryan icon of evil, complete with a scar on his cheek, nicknamed Pretty Boy by the Airmen—and almost every American soldier is a saint. Lucas says the film is a big, joyously jingoistic ride in the vein of Hollywood’s post-WWII war pictures—Nicholas Ray’s “Flying Leathernecks” (1951) in particular. And, in a way, such an approach seems counter to the entire point of making a Tuskegee movie. Not that a pro-patriotic ride isn’t something worthy too—but doing so seems to naturally neuter the two pronged war that the airmen fought, robbing the film of much of the power it could possess. A more powerful edge that the earlier, better, TV movie “The Tuskegee Airmen” has. It’s a shame, really, that a 17-year-old TV movie handles the material better than a modern $58,000,000 budgeted theatrical release. The oversimplification and slant of “Red Tails” seems antiqued in today’s movie market, where audiences are wary of jingoism, and such fictionalized history doesn’t really fly.

Now, to offer the film a backhanded compliment, “Red Tails” really is an incredible visual marvel. The seamless CGI effects look like something out of "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith”—and I really do mean that as a compliment (if a criticism too, in part). The incredible aerobatics of WWII dogfights have never been so impressive—well, aside from the actual combat footage from the war. But effects, even great ones, are, dare I say, not enough anymore. I think, in 2012, that we’re past the point of letting well-rendered computer graphics excuse and overshadow the other flaws a film might have. That’s certainly the case for me, not just with “Red Tails” but almost anything that comes out of Hollywood with a decent budget today. I expect excellent effects these days. Especially from ILM and Mr. Lucas given the fact that they basically invented half the technology used in the industry. When you strip away “Red Tails’” shiny exterior shell that is the effects, and get to the actual mechanics of plot and character, all there is to find are bits of cardboard and photocopies, crumpled up from overuse, cut up and taped back together to form a collage of clichés used to prop up a pilots seat, and plastered inside the dirty cockpit that we’ll call the plot (hey: mixing bad metaphors is fun stuff).

Shortly after the film was released to a largely tepid (some might say even, generally negative) critical response, a small army (of fans and, really, Lucas apologists) began a counter attack, blaming the poor reviews on racist sentiment. I say bunk. The film’s bad (and I’m certainly no racist; I abhor a**holes who judge people based on something as stupid as skin color). “Red Tails” isn’t bad because it’s unentertaining—it is certainly entertaining, with the excellent effects and action set pieces, if you turn your brain off and just accept the awfulness of the dialogue, cliché nature of the characters and the plot and whatever else might make an active mind moan in displeasure. No the film is bad, because taking the history and story of Tuskegee and turning around and making such a bluntly boneheaded action film that’s so utterly stupid, is an affront to the Airmen’s honor. Lucas wanted to educate as much as he wanted to entertain, and he fails except in the most basic of ways on the education.

Video

Perfect and peerless, “Red Tails” soars on Blu-ray with a sterling 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer from Fox and Lucasfilm; a transfer that reflects the very specific intentions of the film’s cinematographer and director(s) and also manages to dazzle with the expected detail and texture of HD. No gremlins in the gears here. The image features excellent definition and vibrant colors, clean contrast, and seamless CGI work. Despite the overabundance of visual effects, “Red Tail” really looks like a relic of yesteryear—and that’s not necessarily bad. Lucas, Hemingway and Aronson go for a classic, almost Technicolor look of a war picture out of old Hollywood (and not the grittier, grainer aesthetic that most war films have adopted post “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), as most modern movies in the genre would). No desaturation here: glossy, noiseless and grand, “Red Tails” has a bright and warm antiqued look, but remains rich. Colors, especially reds, are impressive and appear bold and brilliant. All of the intricacies in the flyboy’s jackets, goggles and planes are revealed in the transfers immense depth and clarity. While some smooth faces and a slight softness seeps into frame in select scenes, it’s clearly intentional—a play of stylized focus meant to mimic that velvety look of films out of the 40's and 50's. Shot in HD with the Sony CineAlta F35 and a combo of Canon DSLR's, the digital-to-digital transfer from the 2K source files is without a single technical hiccup. No edge enhancement, artifacting or other issues. Simply put, film looks amazing in high definition, as well it should.

Audio

As good as the video is, the audio is even better. “Red Tails” made minor (technical) history as the first movie released in select theaters in the Barco Auro-3D 11.1 sound format, a fact the company proudly promotes on their website. As they state: “…the first movie ever mixed in Auro 11.1, a revolutionary sound system that adds an extra height dimension to cinema sound. Since the greater part of 'Red Tails' consists of air combat scenes, Lucasfilm found Auro 11.1 the most suited sound format for this movie. Thanks to Auro 11.1, the sound of airplanes flying overhead in 'Red Tails' will be more realistic and this will surely boost the overall cinema experience of moviegoers.”

Unfortunately, Blu-ray isn’t spec’d for the Auro-3D experience and so an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track has to suffice. And suffice it does—and then some. The dogfights in this film are, sonically, insane. Yes, they’re loud. Yes, the surrounds are super active, with propellers and exploding plane parts ping-pong-ing around the room—with perfect precision, I might add. But, what’s more is that, when the P-51's rumble to life and the bombers buzz on their way to drop their bombs, the LFE responds rightfully with a deep and powerful bass. And, in the dogfights and many other scenes, Terence Blanchard’s ornate orchestral score comes alive with vigor and volume. As bombastic and brash as the mix is in its most aggressive state, what makes “Red Tails” lossless track truly great is that the quiet moments are well done too. As cheesy as the lines are, every word of dialogue comes through clean and clear. And when all these elements come together, the disc is a dynamic powerhouse in terms of audio. “Red Tails” may be flawed in the extreme in terms of tone, plot and overall delivery of content, but on a technical level, it’s truly a masterpiece of sound design (and visual effects). The disc also includes additional tracks in English Dolby Digital surround 2.0, English Descriptive Video Service Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 and French Dolby Digital 5.1 with English and Spanish subtitles.

Extras

“Red Tails” includes a sizable supplemental package, headlined by a terrific historical documentary with recollections from the actual airmen themselves. Other extras include several featurettes that are not nearly as enlightening as the documentary. One way or another, everything on the Blu-ray is a format exclusive. The 2-disc set also includes the DVD release of the film, which includes a heavily edited version of the documentary.

For the record, Fox and Lucasfilm have authored the disc with resume playback and bookmark functions. All video is encoded in top-quality high definition.

DISC ONE: BLU-RAY

Easily the best thing on this Blu-ray is “Double Victory: The Tuskegee Airmen at War” (1080p, 1 hour 5 minutes 47 seconds), a feature-length documentary on the real story of the brave the African American pilots who fought against fascism in Europe and racism at home. Narrated by Cuba Gooding Jr. and featuring interviews with the surviving airmen themselves, their families and WWII historians, the piece is truly excellent stuff and reveals some of the far more interesting elements not explored in “Red Tails”. Even if the film isn’t up to snuff, this supplemental documentary alone makes the disc worth a look.

“With digital technology we can now do the dogfights the way the need to be done.” Sigh. “George Lucas: Executive Producer” (1080p, 3 minutes 26 seconds) is a featurette with Jabba the Hutt… I—I mean, George Lucas, where he talks about how he became interested in the Tuskegee Airmen and their story, and his 20 year journey to get this film to screen and how awesome it is everything can be done on green screen these days. Once again—sigh. The Technician is a talky one. I wish he’d shut and the guy that used to car about story and character would come back.

The next featurette, “Anthony Hemingway: Director” (1080p, 5 minutes 30 seconds), turns focus to the man who actually guided the picture to completion—most of the way, anyway. Hemingway talks about how he became involved with the project, his work with the real airmen and the actors who portrayed them on screen, and more.

Terence Blanchard: Composer” (1080p, 6 minutes 15 seconds) is a featurette that has the composer talking about the daunting task of scoring a Lucasfilm LTD production, and his task of marrying militaristic marches and an epic Williams-esque orchestra with proper period music that the airmen would’ve actually listened in the 1940's to create the soundtrack.

The next featurette is a sprawling piece titled “The Cast of ‘Red Tails’” (1080p, 25 minutes 11 seconds), and although the focus is definitely on the cast and the characters—and most of the interviews are with the actors—this final piece plays more like a cohesive, if EPK-ish, making of, evolving in the second half into a look at the actor’s so-called Boot Camp, their work on set and their interactions with the real airmen. Of the shorter featurettes, this is the only one worth your time.

Lastly, “Movie Magic” (1080p 5 minutes 12 seconds) featurette is all about the visual effects: CG, green screen, etc. It’s weird but these little CG deconstructions really do nothing for me anymore. Call me jaded, but we’re past the point where simply having competent effects isn’t enough.

DISC TWO: DVD

The DVD features an impressive 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and a excellent English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Of course, neither holds a candle to the Blu-ray, but from what I sampled, “Red Tails’” lower resolution presentation is some of the best stuff the standard def format has had in years. English Dolby Surround 2.0, French Dolby Surround 2.0 and Spanish Dolby Surround 2.0 mixes are also includes, along with subtitles in English and Spanish. The disc has a single special feature: “Double Victory: Highlights” (1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, 15 minutes 11 seconds), a short-form of the excellent documentary on the Blu-ray, cut to pieces and edited to a quarter of the length.

Packaging

“Red Tails” is a release from 20th Century Fox in conjunction with Lucasfilm LTD. The 2-disc package contains a dual layer BD-50 and a DVD-9, each housing a version of the film in their respective resolutions, and comes in an eco-Elite keepcase. An embossed cardboard slip-cover has been included in first pressings. The Blu-ray disc is THX-certified, as if that meant anything anymore.

Overall

Oh, George… not again! “Red Tails” is mildly entertaining, I guess, and audiences will probably enjoy it to a point. But as a historically accurate, dutifully dramatic film in the service of a story worth telling, it doesn’t hold up. “Red Tails” is a disappointment and it mostly makes me sad. The Tuskegee Airmen deserve a film better than this, and maybe 30 years ago Lucas could’ve made that movie. If not, about 15 years ago the folks at HBO actually did—and it was pretty good, with a solid supporting performance by Cuba Gooding Jr. to boot! Sure, the effects in “Red Tails” are dazzling but the story is hopelessly trite, forgoing much of what makes the brave airmen’s true tale so worthy of exploration, and instead falling back on countless clichés, contrivance and cardboard characters. The Blu-ray release is a piece of technical perfection, with awesome audio and video. The historical documentary in the supplements makes this worth a look. “Red Tails” is a bad film—or, at least, one that could’ve and should’ve been much, much better—but a great disc.

The Film: C- Video: A+ Audio: A+ Extras: B Overall: B

 


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