review by KJ Doughton, 14 June 2002

Until it finally hits a stride during a rousing third act, John Woo’s latest balletic bloodbath could be deservedly renamed “Windbreaker,” and not the kind you wear to the beach on a breezy day.  His Windtalkers is the latest in Hollywood’s current, never-ending batch of World War II epics, and it gets silver stars for sensational action set-pieces, but a court-martial for its stale dialogue and uncreative, “been there, done that” structure. 

Woo is a natural choice for directing a war film. In fact, one could argue that each elegantly shot movie that the Chinese filmmaker has ever helmed is a war film. The Killer’s grand finale was an orgy of Sam Peckinpah-style ballistics that made The Wild Bunch look like Driving Miss Daisy in comparison. The body count of baddies downed Hard Boiled’s trigger-happy hero rivaled that of Platoon and Saving Private Ryan combined.  Meanwhile, another superb slug of early Woo magic, Bullet in the Head, boasted a P.O.W. torture sequence that rivaled The Deer Hunter’s harrowing Russian Roulette scene for sheer intensity.  Woo can certainly walk the walk.

However, Windtalkers has only the brilliant battlefield choreography to hold it afloat.  The filler passages involve the 1944 clashes between U.S. and Japanese forces on the island of Saipan, and the crucial part that Navajo code-breakers played in such gruesome skirmishes.  Nicolas Cage milks his distressed, loose-cannon eccentricity for all that it’s worth, depicting Marine Sgt. Joe Enders as a man tight-roping across frayed ends of sanity and plagued with flashbacks of previously endured war horrors.  He’s teamed up with Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), a New Mexico Navajo trained at California’s Camp Pendleton to transmit radio messages from one U.S. military squadron to another, without the vital information being deciphered by Japanese translators. 

When Enders is ordered by military brass to supervise Yahzee in the field, and guard his partner’s code at all times, the implication is to dust the Navajo counterpart before allowing him to slide into enemy hands.  After the uneasy team is called into battle, they’re saddled with the usual cluster of supporting character soldiers, including a hayseed racist who instigates the obligatory Woo fistfight with Yahzee.  There are other tired sequences in which the white grunts look onward in curious admiration as the Navajo code breakers perform a “protection ceremony” to ward off evil spirits, slathering ash across their face while Native American reed music sounds off in the background.  Ultimately, there’s a betrayal of sorts, and Enders is left to prove his sincerity to Yahzee.  This stirs up a bit of drama, but it’s too little too late.

The script is generic Hollywood banter straight from the Pearl Harbor cliché heap. When commander Jason Isaacs (who livened up The Patriot as a ruthless redcoat, and is totally wasted here) informs Enders of his mission to oversee the code talker, Cage’s rebellious G.I. rants, “I’ll best serve the corps killing Japs, not babysitting some Indian.”  Later, a tacked on love interest (Frances O’Connor) writes to Enders, announcing, “I took in a stray dog. He reminds me of you. At least he keeps me warm at night.”  Suddenly, the sappy love banter in Attack of the Clones starts sounding like David Mamet in comparison. 

Ultimately, it’s difficult to dismiss a film staged with such finesse and care, especially one about such an important and overlooked chapter in wartime history (the film is based on actual coding developed by twenty-nine Navajo Marines in 1942, a system which was never cracked by the Japanese).  But Windtalkers is awfully familiar. Perhaps if Woo had moved the Navajo component center-stage, and jettisoned Cage’s unnecessarily domineering presence, his film would take on a more crisp, original feel.  As it stands, Hollywood’s latest World War II installment has more in common with Michael Bay than with the fever-dream lunacy and go-for-broke kick of Hard Boiled.  Too bad.

Directed by:
John Woo

Nicolas Cage
Adam Beach
Peter Stormare
Noah Emmerich
Mark Ruffalo
Christian Slater
Frances O’Connor

Written by:
John Rice
Joe Batteer

R - Restricted.
No one under 17 admitted
without parent or guardian..





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