Mr. Beaks Flies Into Battle With George Lucas's RED TAILS!
Published at: March 2, 2009, 4:11 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
If you're any kind of STAR WARS fan, the title RED TAILS should mean something to you. Though I can't seem to nail down the exact date the project was announced (I say 1992, but a couple of reliable Lucas-philes think it might be as old as WILLOW), it was, for many years, one of those "non-prequel" ideas Lucas batted around in interviews just to get our hopes up that he might one day return to big-screen feature filmmaking. Then RADIOLAND MURDERS actually happened (for better or worse), EPISODE I went forward (ditto), and RED TAILS was, over time, downgraded to one of those pet concepts that Lucas would maybe get to once the prequel trilogy was completed.
Some sixteen years later, RED TAILS is finally leaving the hangar.
For those of you not up on your Lucasfilm lore, RED TAILS was always intended to be some kind of history-based tribute to the World War II exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen. But that was the extent of the public's knowledge about the project. Would it be an epic, three-hour take on the formation, training and deployment of the squadron, or a high-octane homage to the flyboy yarns that inspired the x-wing/tie-fighter battles in STAR WARS? If Lucas had any interest in winning Oscars, the former might've been a possibility. But one of the things I've always liked about Lucas is that, with very few exceptions (all of them being over twenty years old), he doesn't go in for prestige. He may feint at making "small independent films like Francis", but, as CHUD's Devin Faraci discovered a while back, that's hardly a priority. Lucas is less an artist than a gearhead. And he's at his best when crafting stories around young men who dig fast moving vehicles.
Let's see... fighter pilots are young... planes are fast... Could RED TAILS be George Lucas's most honest and, dare I say it, heartfelt entertainment since THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK?
If you take John Ridley's screenplay as the sum total of its aerial action (which is so specific, I wouldn't be surprised if it was written and pre-vis'd a decade ago by Lucas himself), it absolutely is. The first twenty-one pages reads like STAR WARS in the European Theatre. Starting with a daredevil assault on a German train chugging through the Italian countryside (replete with pilot banter borrowed almost directly from the Death Star trench run), and concluding with a blind landing on a crowded military airfield, you get the feeling that this is Lucas's attempt to reclaim the modern World War II movie from Spielberg. "Lighten up, Steve! Let's go back to the days when fighting and dying for your country was fun!" I know that sounds snide, but it's really a compliment of sorts; despite Ridley's disappointing reliance on war film cliches (hard to take the "Dead Meat" archetype seriously after HOT SHOTS), RED TAILS is an enthralling read. Most importantly, it's so unabashedly commercial that I don't think it would outright kill the possibility of another, more serious Tuskegee Airmen film getting made somewhere down the road.
Flipping through RED TAILS, I was reminded that there is a place for corny war films with stock characters - and it's not just the 1940s and 50s. And since the brave African-American pilots who served the United States so brilliantly never got their FLYING LEATHERNECKS, there's no harm in honoring them with an escapist entertainment. The question is whether audiences have a taste for that kind of thing in the wake of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (one might even reach back to PLATOON*) and the difficult occupation of Iraq. It's impossible to dodge the grim realities of warfare anymore, so a glossy, not-too-bloody throwback may not be as welcome as it might've been when Lucas first started developing the script.
It may be a tough climate for patriotic war films, but RED TAILS is so defiantly out of time, I don't think it's going to matter - especially when you factor in the artificiality of the endeavor. Though Lucas hasn't discussed in any great detail how he plans to shoot the movie (with director Anthony Hemingway tending to those icky "actors"), he'll certainly entrust the elaborate combat sequences to the the best of the best at ILM (given the emphasis on action at the expense of character development, I wouldn't be surprised if he opts for IMAX 3-D). Will this overwhelm the human element? Possibly. But, like I said, the humans are little more than instantly identifiable archetypes you either cheer or hiss.
What is a little strange is that RED TAILS is mostly an ensemble piece. If there's anything close to a protagonist, it's Marty Julian aka "Easy". He's the steady, fiercely loyal flight leader who disobeys orders in the opening sequence by talking his blinded pal, Ray "Ray Gun" Knight, through a rough landing. We get the sense early on from a post-assault briefing - in which the pilots watch film captured from the cameras mounted in the planes - that Easy and his fellow airmen are top-notch and combat-ready; unfortunately, as we learn in the next scene, the top brass at the Pentagon is unconvinced that this "colored experiment" is working. Do "negro" pilots possess the requisite degree of skill and intellect? Are they too wild or, worse, cowardly? There is, of course, plenty of racism to overcome, but, due to the outfit's lack of meaningful missions, there also aren't many statistics to counter these unreasonable assertions. As a result, the Tuskegee program is on the verge of being shut down.
While the Pentagon considers the fate of the fighter group, their leader, Colonel A.J. Bullard, wrangles a fairly significant "air cover" errand for his men. When they outperform expectations (racking up four kills and no losses), Bullard is offered a serious but potentially deadly mission: escorting American bombers as they conduct raids over German targets in broad daylight. Losses have been so severe for the Air Force in these operations that they're willing to try anything. And the fact is that no one will ever know whether these Tuskegee pilots are prone to breaking formation and acting like children in the heat of battle until they're actually thrust into the heat of battle.
The historical record tells you how this all plays out, but, as always, there should be excitement and suspense in the re-telling as you wonder who'll make it out of these perilous missions alive. This is where RED TAILS might disappoint those hoping for a more modern World War II film instead of, say, TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH: aside from the racial element (which is cliched in its own way), you've seen this movie before; you know who lives and who dies from the moment they're introduced. That said, you've also loved this movie before, so while you might roll your eyes at the trite dialogue or wince at the obligatory dust-up between the airmen and a group of racist American soldiers (which, amusingly, is preceded by a quick high school history lesson on W.E.B. Du Bois vs. Booker T. Washington), there can still be something exhilarating about this type of war film.
Rounding up an appealing company of actors will obviously help in putting this material over (and I think Hemingway is probably a good choice as director, given his TV work on high-end ensemble shows like THE WIRE and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA), but the make-or-break will be the aerial acrobatics of the Tuskegee airmen in their trusty P-51 Mustangs. As I mentioned before, the combat sequences are written with such precision, it's like having the storyboards right in front of you. Lucas's vision couldn't be any clearer. And while the action predictably builds in scale as the story progresses, it's hard to not get worked up over the grand finale: a massive bombing raid on Berlin that pits the airmen against a swarming fleet of the Third Reich's finest fighter pilots (led by an ace called the "White Baron").
As Lucas proved with the chaotic opening battle that kicks off REVENGE OF THE SITH, he still knows how to stage and edit combat. The trick, however, is imbuing the CG mayhem with tangible, flesh-and-blood danger; otherwise, it's just a $200 million video game demo. Though the overwhelming enormity of an IMAX screen could assist in immersing the audience in Lucas's fabricated environment, the onus will mostly fall on the actors, who'll have to invest Ridley's shopworn dialogue with conviction and charisma (ordinarily, I'd be hoping for a polish of some sort, but even the unseen hand of Tom Stoppard couldn't bring poetry to the final installment of the STAR WARS prequels). That's a tall order, but if the actors commit to the material, anything's possible. As of last Friday (2/27), offers are reportedly out to Terrence Howard, Andre Royo (Bubs!), Nate Parker (who should be on the verge of stardom after his excellent performance in THE GREAT DEBATERS), David Oyelowo (Dr. Junju in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND), R&B star Ne-Yo, Bryan Cranston (currently earning accolades for his work on BREAKING BAD) and Barry Pepper.
RED TAILS may occasionally feel like an educational tool, but it's mostly just an old-fashioned 1950s war movie honoring real-life heroism, and I can't knock it for that. Best of all for Lucas, it's not the continuation of an old, wheezing franchise. Unburdened by the crushing expectations of the prequels or INDY 4 (and I'm so going to regret saying this), there's a very good chance RED TAILS could be perceived as a return to form when it hits theaters in 2010.
*Hell, why stop there? What was the last uplifting, PG-ish war movie? The Green Berets?