Saturday, January 21, 2012

Movie History: Red Tails (2012) and Jackie Chan's 1911 (2011)

Will cocky, ever-so-cheerful-in-battle African American fighter pilots prove to the racist white officers in the Pentagon that they will be brave under fire as they escort B-17 bombers on their mission? Oh, yes they will. (Historically, I don’t know where the white officers were coming from, saying in a report in the early 1900s that African Americans were essentially cowards. Hadn’t black soldiers already fought bravely and died in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War?)

With this central conflict, the World War II historical action movie Red Tails (whose title refers to the red tails painted on the planes the African Americans flew) is very much a made-for-television affair. But the film’s tangential plotlines and its visual scope turn it into an epic historical film that is too lengthy for its own good.

Along with ample scenes showing that yes, indeed, the African American aces under the command of Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard) and Major Stance (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) are not afraid to shoot down Jerries led by the stereotypically venomous and scar-faced Kraut “Pretty Boy” (Lars van Riesen), the film spends time on the highly improbable love story between Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo) and a gorgeous Italian woman (Daniela Ruah). It even turns prison camp movie when “Junior” (Tristan Wilds) ends up in a German P.O.W. camp where he impresses white American inmates by helping their escape effort in the role of “scrounger.” Later, he distracts a guard from shooting an escapee who sticks his head out of the tunnel in a scene that borrows unimaginatively from The Great Escape

Throughout, Red Tails makes up for its hackneyed central plot by providing lots to look at. The pilots live and work in a vast Italian airfield that is vividly rendered in sprawling long shots, and there are no limits to the action enhanced by CGI as the daredevil “Lightning” shoots up a train, then a battleship, then an entire German airfield. In the film’s climactic battle, a dizzying visual overload of flying images, the brave pilots defend B-17 bombers in an attack by German jet planes that whiz past in a blur. This is the first depiction of propeller-driven fighter planes pitted against World War II jets that I’ve seen! In a slip-up, however, “Lightning” shoots down a German jet and says, “That puts an end to Pretty Boy,” but how the hell did he identify the German pilot in his much faster jet?

For the most part, the acting carries the film and the actors playing the various pilots and ground crew are invested in their small parts. Howard is at his ardent best, and I have to say that Gooding, Jr. suppresses the over-acting, and over-smiling, to portray a realistically serious and seasoned squadron leader. Finally, the sincere performance of David Oyelowo (excellent in the British mini-series 5 Days provides the film’s central strength.

Ultimately, the film holds together and takes you along despite some talkie scenes that slow it down. At the end, things get heavy-handed with excessive flag-waving and a musical score, overbearing throughout, that waxes irritatingly histrionic with its rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. All in all, Red Tails is a worthwhile viewing experience that features David Oyelowo, gripping action, and German jet planes. Unfortunately, no horses. (See “It’s gotta have horses.”)

Unlike Red Tails, Jackie Chan’s patriotic 1911, a film about the Xinhai Revolution, released in 2011 in honor of the 100th anniversary of the uprising that overthrew the Qing Dynasty and established the Republic of China, features a horse as a central image in a scene in which Huang Xing (Jackie Chan), commander of nationalist forces, is impressed by the red nationalist flag brought to the front by a messenger on horseback. Appropriating flag and horse, Xing rides out across no man’s land to inspire his beleaguered troops during an artillery barrage. Suddenly, the stirring scene is cut short and we see Xing running through the trenches telling his men to take cover. This is the nature of 1911, very much like Red Tails a made-for-television effort. 1911 is full of brief vignettes, some of them striking, some of them pointless, some of them merely adding more information to a film that ambitiously tries to cover too much of a complex event that involved multiple uprisings and battles and countless important persons.

As Huang Xing, Chan restrains the overacting and does a serious job as the fervent revolutionist turned leader of ragtag forces that suffer heavy casualties. He does, however, manage to insert the requisite Jackie Chan martial arts display when Xing thwarts an assassination attempt. The attractive Bingbing Lee plays Xu Zonghan, a woman dedicated to the cause who works as a nurse and bucks up the dispirited Huang Xing. Meanwhile, from San Francisco to London and Paris, Sun Yat-Sen (Winston Chao), the ideological leader of the movements, drums up financial support for the republican cause while trying to stop financial support of the Manchus.

Jackie Chan knows how to stage rousing, heroic action. The first battle, the best one, involves a failed attempt by civilian revolutionists to gain power, and it is appropriately fast-paced and chaotic. It ends badly for the revolutionists, as we see in a striking crane shot of executed revolutionists strewn on a muddy beach. In the film’s central set piece, Xing leads his men in a charge across no man’s land.

Chan’s film is well intended though often stilted and mostly unable to surpass a made-for-television look and tone. When Sun Yat-Sen heads for England, he sails aboard a ship so poorly rendered by CGI it would be better left on the cutting room floor. A few powerful scenes are the exceptions, one of them being the image of the bodies on the beach, another involving a female revolutionist, her neck in a wooden yoke, marched down a crowded street to her execution.

Another problem with the film is that it tries to cram in too much information. Chan packs in a lot of history by presenting a battle or incident followed by big chunks of text telling us the detailed results. On top of that, the DVD is a challenge to watch. If you choose Mandarin with English subtitles, you have to be a speed-reader to catch the dense, quickly changing subtitles, while you try to keep one eye on the frenetic action. If you choose the English dubbing so that you can follow the action undistracted by subtitles, you get silly voices that make the actors sound like Japanese anime characters. In addition, the chunks of historical text, full of all-inclusive litanies of Chinese names, are too small to read without zooming in on the frame.

The film is informative and sometimes fascinating to watch, but ultimately the pace gets bogged down in confusing politics as Yat-sen gives up the presidency to Yuan Shikai, for some reason that isn’t clear, and in order to pep things up, the film ends flatly with a surge of patriotic music accompanying shots of a bas relief commemorating the revolution. I’m a big fan of Doctor Zhivago. I love movies featuring passionate revolutionists involved in an epic struggle, but in Jackie Chan’s 1911 the facts outweigh the passion and the visual scope.

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