Someone needs to break it to Nicolas Cage that World War II is over. First it was Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and now it’s Windtalkers. And while Windtalkers has several things going for it that Captain Corelli didn’t — mostly in the dynamic directorial panache of John Woo — it’s ultimately just another war picture tarted-up in ever-gorier effects. The fact that Cage doesn’t have to adopt a painful Chico Marx accent and cavort about like a comic relief Italian in a 1940s war movie endlessly prattling about Verdi and Puccini is a plus, but all in all his Sergeant Joe Enders just trades that set of cliches for another one. Cage is certainly more believable here, but the problem is that it really oughtn’t have been his film. Is the picture called Shell-Shocked Marine Suffering a Crise-de-Conscience? No. It’s called Windtalkers, and it ought to be about the Navajo Indians used by the U.S. government to relay coded messages based on their language that the Japanese couldn’t crack during WWII. But for some reason, the filmmakers didn’t trust that story and opted to graft this wholly superfluous standard-issue, war-movie-cliche-plot onto it. You’ve probably never seen a movie about the Navajo code before, but I’m willing to bet you’ve seen more than one movie about the stoic, guilt-ravaged soldier, who by all rights should be invalided out of armed forces altogether, but manages to bamboozle the doctors into sending him back into action and … well, like I said, you’ve seen it before. It’s really no different here. In opting to go with this more “accessible” (accessible meaning mainstream and white, in this case), the movie ends up feeling incredibly muddled. The exact value of the Navajo code isn’t even clear, since every instance of its use concerns bringing about some rapid military action that the Japanese couldn’t have done anything about, even if the messages had been relayed in their own tongue by Tojo himself. After all, learning that a massive air strike is going to hit your bunker in 30 seconds hardly leaves time for doing much more than trying to get the hell out of the bunker! In fact, in one of the film’s best sequences, Cage and his “windtalker” charge, Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach, Joe Dirt), infiltrate a Japanese encampment so Yahzee can use their radio to call for help — in English. (We won’t even mention the incredible fact that, having done this, it never occurs to them that it might be in their favor to knock out the Japanese radio before they head back to their own lines.) The film attains some measure of emotional depth by virtue of the fact — not surprisingly kept from the Navajos — that their bodyguards have orders to keep the code from falling into enemy hands at any cost, up to and including killing the Indians if it comes to that. But it’s just not enough to fix the central problems. In nearly every respect, the film’s script defaults to a by-the-numbers war picture, where it’s a simple matter to predict who is going to hand in his mess-kit and when it will happen. With the exception of Christian Slater’s Sergeant “Ox” Henderson and newcomer Roger Willie’s Private Charlie Whitehorse, the characters are all pretty much of the war-movie cookie-cutter variety — even to the extent of including the token racist Southern boy (it goes without saying that he’s going to be Southern) who will finally see the error of his ways when a Navajo saves his life. What does work about the picture is attributable to John Woo, whose mastery of action scenes is undisputed and unique. Whatever is wrong about Windtalkers on any other level, there’s no denying that its battle scenes are among the most brilliantly orchestrated ever committed to film. Woo’s great knack lies in his ability to stage incredibly complex battle scenes that unfold with a terrifying logic and coherence. They come across in such a manner that their chaos seems peculiarly understandable, yet nothing about them ever feels falsely choreographed. It’s a gift and a frightening one — and one that ought to be put to better use than Windtalkers.
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