Filmmaker John Woo (Hardboiled, Face/Off) is famed for his bloody action sequences and melodramatic convulsions of alliance, allegiance, betrayal and redemption. Characters whose inner turmoil is as crippling and corruptive as the violence that engulfs them usually toss back stiff cocktails of running shootouts, balletic carnage and men-in-heat standoffs. And Woo embraces both tender and tumultuous passages with the same uninhibited passion.
Windtalkers, set primarily during the 1944 U.S. invasion of Saipan, carries Woo’s stamp of squib overkill and damaged humanity but not his operatic intensity. It resuscitates a neglected slice of World War II history (the use of Navajo tribesmen as secret-code radiomen) only to smother it with clichés and repetitive massacres. This overly long lunge into bigotry and battlefield morality recreates the campaign in brutal detail but stumbles as an anthem to comradeship, courage and patriotism. It also may divide audiences on the merit of blowing up Nicolas Cage at least four times in the same movie (a maneuver here that would certainly have perked up Cage’s terminally maudlin Captain Corelli’s Mandolin).
Cage stars as world-weary Marine Sergeant Joe Enders. Enders commands his men to stand fast during a 1943 battle on the Solomon Islands even though they are running out of ammo and being overrun by the Japanese.
This tactic gets many soldiers killed, and leaves Enders with a scarred ear and guilty conscience. He convinces a hospital nurse (Frances O’Connor) to help him cheat on a hearing test, is reassigned to combat duty and then ignores her letters that stream to the front.
The government has been using Navajos as code talkers in the Pacific and Enders and Sergeant Ox Henderson (Christian Slater) are ordered to protect privates Ben Yahzee (Canadian Adam Beach with a frozen grin) and Charlie Whitehorse (an excellent Roger Willie) while they send and receive secret battlefield messages. Their ultimate order is to “protect the code at all costs,” which means they are to kill their two charges if capture by the
Japanese appears imminent. The big question looms: will Enders sacrifice the life of a comrade in arms for the welfare of The Big Picture? The film reaches an answer with unconvincing aplomb.
The script by Blown Away scribes John Rice and Joe Batteer introduces a parade of typical war-picture Caucasians (the redneck, the soldier who wants his wedding ring returned to his wife, the soldier who befriends an island girl) without much imagination. It gives us more background on Enders than it does the Navajos of the title. Enders mows down multitudes of enemy soldiers without receiving a graze in return, and Woo’s trademark slow-motion photography is replaced by time fragments in which heated battle inexplicably screeches to a halt so soldiers can exchange profound looks without whizzing bullets detracting from their moments of sudden lucidity.
We learn that music breaks down social barriers as Henderson threatens to burst into a campfire ballad on harmonica at any moment and Whitehorse soothes racial indignity with his wooden flute. The film also has bookends shot in Monument Valley, a panoramic John Ford western staple, which reminded me that Ford once made a better war movie (They Were Expendable) and that Woo had begun here before with another disappointment (Mission: Impossible 2).
Scenes in which Ender and Yahzee discuss their Catholic backgrounds, and Enders gets a medal for valor while the deserving Yahzee is snubbed are evidence of the dramatic possibilities missed here, but Windtalkers is not without merit. Its plunges from serenity into violence are stunning. The cruelty and mayhem at hand is underscored by nature’s beauty (with Oahu substituting for Saipan), and the pitched, claustrophobic hand-to-hand combat is mesmerizing in small doses. The sound editing featuring the crisp, nasty bite of bullets is also Oscar caliber, but watch this film to be nominated for more MTV Movie (Most Shots Fired in Other Than an A-Team Rerun Without Hitting the Star) than Academy Awards.