The MovieGeorge Lucas finally got his WWII pet-project off the ground, so to speak, with the 2012 release of Red Tails. Director Anthony Hemingway's film focuses on the all-African-American cadre of fighter pilots - otherwise known as the Tuskegee Airmen - begrudgingly created by the USAAF in the early 1940s, though it’s more of a derring-do adventure with racial themes rather than a didactic dissection of the Tuskegee’s legendary exploits. This is of course typical of Lucas, who delights in telling very old-fashioned stories using very modern methods, and his production of Red Tails is no exception.
The struggle of the Tuskegee Airmen to be able to do some good for their country is a mightily inspirational tale, and Lucas' take is set in the skies over Italy as the men are transformed from marginalised outcasts into a key component of the war effort. However, the film cannot be examined on any serious dramatic level because the narrative is propelled by several story strands woven out of purest Cheddar. You've got a flyboy falling in love with a gorgeous signorina that he saw from the sky (!), and a scar-faced German hotshot who wants to put one over on the "Afrikaners", not to mention the incongruous segue into a POW movie - complete with its own great escape - halfway through. And the way in which our heroes are shunned in a white officer’s bar and then welcomed later on was to be expected, but that doesn’t make it any less clichéd.
The film makes it painfully obvious that it's simply not possible to take as worthy a theme as institutional (nay, governmental) racism and embed it in such a corny adventure, because this ill-fitting amalgamation of the serious and the silly undermines the whole premise. Lucas complained that the studios weren’t taking on the film because it was about black heroes, even going so far as to take his sob story to Oprah. But in my opinion they didn’t want to touch the film with a barge pole (apparently most of the majors didn’t even bother to go to a pre-sale screening) because they knew exactly what they were going to get: A George Lucas Joint without the $400 million dollar headstart at the box office that the Star Wars or Indiana Jones names would provide.
Lucas’ style has always reminded me of films like Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 King Kong, a movie which I find to be hilariously outdated in terms of the writing and performing, but with special effects so astonishing that they carry the whole movie. It’s rightfully regarded as a classic, with the passage of time allowing us to sweep the questionable nature of the rest of it under the carpet. The key thing about Lucas’ sensibilities is that he’s hardly moved on from that era, the man blinded to the fact that certain aspects of those films – chiefly the paper-thin characterisation, crude acting and tin-eared dialogue – are given a pass because they are products of a different age. Lucas does not have the distance of history to fall back on, yet he stubbornly adheres to those tenets because he only makes films that he wants to see, films that hark back to his own formative years.
The dialogue isn’t as disastrously cloth-eared as the Star Wars prequels, John Ridley and Aaron McGruder's script playing at a jingoistic level that’s more fitting for the material, although there’s still a fair amount of Edam in there. The characters are mere cyphers, the pilots being the usual mix of the maverick hotshot, the seemingly straight-laced leader, the rookie looking to prove himself, the God-fearing soul who you know is going to take a bullet etc.
Everyone involved does their best to play these guys as straight as they can, with the believable friendship between David Oyelowo's brash Joe 'Lightning' Little and Nate Parker's laid-back Marty 'Easy' Julian being the foundation upon which the film is based. Cuba Gooding Jr isn't bad as the squadron's commander, and some fella called Ne-Yo (I understand that he's a musical entertainer) is also decent value. The gentleman who plays the religious flyer is extremely wooden though, and it doesn’t get any better when we move up to the top brass, with Bryan Cranston playing Sneering Racist General #1. And Terrence Howard's Colonel Bullard is almost unbearably forthright, as he's constantly spouting inspirational speeches but is incapable of actually conversing with anyone.
However, that’s not to say that the movie doesn’t provide some entertainment; how much you get will depend on how you approach it. Watch with post-modern blinkers on and you’ll be howling with laughter at how hokey it all is, but if you can simply accept it at face value and regard it as a deliberate filmmaking throwback to a bygone era, then you might just like it. Even though the whiff of dairy permeates every frame, there is a small part of me that got caught up in the story, precisely because of the TV-movie-of-the-week sentimentality and the gung-ho action scenes.
The thrilling digital dogfights are worth the price of admission on their own, and they work so well because they haven’t been staged with a (virtual) camera that roams anywhere it pleases just because it can. Instead, we’re often carried along under a wing or in the gun camera mount or looking out of the cockpit, giving the scenes of aerial combat real weight and solidity. Funnily enough, it's when the movie is on the ground that it has a somewhat ersatz feel, what with the myriad digital set extensions and all-too-obvious compositing of people and places who weren't actually together at the same time. Such is life at Lucasfilm.
The DiscMomentum's region B locked disc is not blighted by forced trailers and has only English audio/subtitle options. One minor niggle with the subtitles concerns the player-generated captions for the German speaking parts of the film, as the subs seem to have been copied straight out of the HoH stream because they always start with [In German], which spoils the mood a little.
Red Tails was shot in HD on a mix of Sony’s CineAlta F35 system and the Canon D5 and D7, topped off with a 2K DI finish. The 2.40 widescreen image has a surprisingly well balanced colour palette, eschewing the contemporary teal and orange look for a more classical range of colour. Blue looks like, well, blue and flesh tones are pleasingly accurate, regardless of ethnicity. The contrast range runs from crisp whites to deep blacks, though shadow detail looks a little crushed here and there.
Fine detail is very good, as befits the 100% digital origination of the show, with not a trace of grain or video noise, but I spotted some aliasing on horizontal edges in a couple of shots. Solid patches of colour can appear quite fragile at times, as there’s some occasional banding throughout the show. I can’t be sure as to whether it’s the encode or the source that’s at fault, but it's worth mentioning that this isn't the only recent Momentum release that has such issues: The Raid is plagued by particularly poor colour compression.
I can sum up the audio in two words: crushing disappointment. It’s presented in lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, yet its so flat and uninvolving I couldn’t quite believe my ears. Louder passages of dialogue sound harsh and strident, and there's some awful lip-sync with the ADR'd sections. The music is buried low in the mix and the LFE is very weak; even the drums of the Fox logo at the start of the film don’t carry the undercurrent of bass that they normally do. The sound design of the aerial attack sequences does what you’d expect, with planes zooming around the speakers, but the gunfire and explosions lack impact and sound incredibly weedy.
This being a Lucasfilm production I engaged the EX processing on my receiver hoping for some 6.1 thrills, however they were not forthcoming. For a film mixed in a theatrical 11.1 configuration (using the Auro-3D system) this Blu-ray mix is a surprisingly anaemic experience. Fox’s US Blu-ray has had some rave reviews for its DTS-HD soundtrack, so I don’t quite know what’s gone wrong here.
The extras consist of 3 very lightweight interviews with the director, producer and composer, plus a short VFX comparison reel. This slim package is bulked out with an hour-long TV documentary about the Tuskegee Airmen, narrated by Cuba Gooding Jr, which is a darn sight more informative than the movie is. Unfortunately this disc is missing the 25-minute 'making of' featurette seen on Fox's US Blu-ray, though the other features are present on both versions.