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