Sunday, February 19, 2012

Black (Trail) Blazers: Red Tails

It seemed that for much of 2011, Terence Howard was absent from movie screens. Sure, he was a lead voice  in "The Princess and The Frog" he helped to talk a man down from a window ledge (a well-worn theme that recurs in Hollywood this year) in "The Ledge" and one or two other small features.

But the release, this year, of the George Lucas-produced WWII flyboy drama must be a special case of deja vu for Howard, as well as for co-star Cuba Gooding Jr. Both previously played members of the Tuskeegee Airmen, the pioneering Afro-American aerial combat unit, Gooding for HBO's "The Tuskeegee Airmen" and Howard in "Hart's War" (2002).

This time around, they're commanding officers, with Howard as Gooding's superior. The feature is not, however that concerned with rank. Its areas of focus are three-fold: the prejudice faced by the commanders and their charges from the all-white top brass and political system (albeit a system hungry for successful anti-Nazi strikes to parade in PR newsreels); the personal travails - fear, love (including inter-racial), alcohlism etc - of the flyboys, anxious to prove their mettle, and the dogfights.

Its unfortunately  - but understandably - the latter area which gets the most attention from director Anthony Hemmingway. Having taken the journeyman route, as assistant and second unit director on several notable films ('Ali", "Changing Lanes") one might expect that Hemmingway, given his first full feature at the helm, would have a better sense of balance.

Disappointingly, he doesn't. One certainly expects a bit (or more) of Top Gun-type aerial razzmatazz, but in this department, Mr Hemmingway proves no real match for Tony Scott and his crew. Added to that, the film spends so much time in the sky that the other issues don't quite get the full development they require. Oneexception is the uneasy bond between squadron leader "Easy" Julian and the brash but gifted ace Joe "Lightning" Little. Actors Nate Parker and David Oyelowo (try saying that 3 times fast) make the interplay eminently layered and credible.  

So too, do the two veterans. Its clear though , that Howard  is in the driver's seat of this narrative and, without exception, his scenes crackle with unforced intensity and that barely suppressed rage in the face of injustice. R n' b star Ne-Yo also turns in a creditable performance. But, its not quite enough to take Red Tails into the stratosphere. This is no doubt a story that needs telling and repeating, and it is, of course,  timed to perfection. But, echoing the complaint of the  young flyboys and their superiors, it needs a better vehicle.

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