USA, 2002. Rated R. 133 minutes.

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Christian Slater, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Stormare, Noah Emmerich, Roger Willie, Frances O'Connor, Brian Van Holt, Martin Henderson, Jason Isaacs
Writers: John Rice, Joe Batteer
Music: James Horner
Cinematographer: Jeffrey L. Kimball
Producers: Terence Chang, Tracie Graham, Alison R. Rosenzweig, John Woo
Director: John Woo


Grade: C- Review by Carlo Cavagna

Few foreign filmmakers have arrived in the United States as hotly anticipated as John Woo when he relocated from Hong Kong. Given Hollywood's generous budgets, it was expected that Woo's U.S. achievements would surpass even his fine Hong Kong films. Now, nine years and five major studio releases later, that artistic success has yet to materialize. Even though the box office results have been good, only Face/Off came close to the fevered ectasy of The Killer and Hard Boiled. Hard Target? A Van Damme vehicle designed only to get Woo's feet wet in America. Broken Arrow? Good-looking crap. Mission: Impossible II? Strictly a studio picture--a sequel with a recycled 007 plot.

In Windtalkers, Woo continues to display visual artistry, but it's not directed with the imaginative abandon of The Killer or even Face/Off. Of course it isn't. This is, after all, a World War Two movie intent on recognizing the achievements of under-appreciated Navajo Indians who served in the Marines, where they used their native language as the basis of a radio code never broken by the Japanese. Serious stuff. Woo seems overly conscious of that, excising the balletic, slow-motion splendor of the fight choreography and foregoing the romantic intimacy between the camera and the leading men that you find in other Woo films. Instead, he has made a conventional war drama that retains only two things distinctly Woo: the mobile camerawork of the spectacular battle sequences (always tracking the action and thrusting the viewer into the fray) and the unabashed melodramatics.Adam Beech as Private Yahzee

Woo has a made a film that would make Randall Wallace blush. In The Killer, given the unusual context, the virtuoso artistry, and the cinematic passion, Woo's melodramatics work. In Windtalkers, they serve only to cast a harsh light on an outrageous collection of war movie clichés. Every development is telegraphed and obvious (save, perhaps, one).

If the film's antihero (Nicolas Cage) receives orders to "protect the code" (i.e., to kill his Navajo ward rather than allow him to fall into enemy hands), you know for a fact that he will be confronted with a Difficult Decision before film's end. If, furthermore, that same antihero is tormented by the memories of losing an entire platoon in a previous battle, you know for a fact that he will again be asked to assume command of his platoon in a Desperate Situation. Also, if the Navajo protagonist (Adam Beach) is repeatedly belittled by a racist comrade (Noah Emmerich), you know for a fact that the Navajo will eventually save the other's life, causing him to recognize the Error of His Ways. Even more obviously, if the platoon occupies a seemingly safe, calm village, you know for a fact that all hell is going to break loose. Those who deserve their come-uppance, get it. Those who require redemption, find it. How fortunate that wars are replete with such tidy storylines!

Despite the pat plotlines, Windtalkers does have some narrative gaps and loose ends. For instance, the presence of Frances O'Connor as a nurse who unfathomably takes a shine to the dour, self-obsessessed Sergeant Enders (Cage) adds little, appealing though O'Connor may be. Her role seems to be to attempt to convince us that there is something likeable about Enders. Eventually, she disappears from the film.

A more central problem is that Windtalkers fails to achieve its goal of relating the history of the Navajo codebreakers (not that one necessarily goes to a film like Windtalkers, or any non-documentary, desiring to be educated). The movie doesn't get close to any of the characters, except Enders, to whom it's not particularly pleasant to be close. The Navajos, privates Ben Yahzee (Beach) and Charles Whitehorse (Roger Willie), get a lot of screen time, but they are treated with a sort of arm's-length reverence. There's not much reason to care who lives and who dies.

The battle sequences are exceptional--one expects nothing less from Woo, and he delivers. By themselves they provide almost enough of a raison d'être for Windtalkers. Then again, there have been quite a few films recently (ever since Saving Private Ryan) that have offered spectacular war footage, so there's not much point in seeking out Windtalkers just for that. When the guns are quiet, you'll find yourself checking your watch, and wondering whether Woo will ever again direct with great passion, and if he does, whether he will have anything new to say.

Review © June 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2002 MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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