George Lucas may not have directed Red Tails himself, but he definitely left some fingerprints on it. Like Star Wars and the Indiana Jones series, this is a throwback film. The nostalgically sentimental tone (I believe Lucas himself called it “naive”) evokes a simpler time, when war and movies about it were all about honor and glory–and when all it took to overcome injustice and bigotry was two hours of killing Nazis.
In this case, nostalgia doesn’t always serve the best interest of the film. There’s some clunky dialogue and stiff performances (both intentional, I think, especially in Cuba’s case); a lot of the ground scenes in general just feel too old-fashioned for their own good–Star Wars and Raiders both built on the cinematic traditions they followed, while Red Tails keeps its feet firmly planted in the past.
But when those planes take to the skies, the film treats us to some pure aerial ballet. The dogfights are all beautifully choreographed–fighters fill the screen, dodging, weaving, spinning into balls of fire, and yet following the maneuvers never becomes a challenge. And despite the awkward execution of some of the ground scenes, they did get me invested in the characters, ensuring that all the action sequences were suspenseful.
While certain elements of the script were predictable at best and overly manipulative at worst, I thought the writers made several effective structural choices. The opening grabbed me right away: not only is it flawlessly paced (assisted by some superb scoring), it succinctly sets up one of the major conflicts (to win the war, fighters need to reevaluate their tactical choices). “Pretty Boy,” a tenacious German pilot with a nasty scar, is an inspired creation, putting a concrete face on the enemy. And the climax, while a bit melodramatic, is emotionally satisfying–any misgivings I had about the previous scenes were wiped away with the tears.
[Originally written January 23, 2012.]