2002 - R - 122 Mins.
|Director: John Woo|
|Producer: Terence Chang, Tracie Graham, Alison R. Rosenzweig, John Woo|
|Written By: John Rice & Joe Batteer|
|Starring: Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Christian Slater, Peter Stormare, Noah Emmerich |
|Review by: James O'Ehley
During America’s campaign against Japan in the Pacific during World War II, the U.S. army used a code that was never broken by the Japanese (who apparently broke lots). This code was devised by some Navajos (a Native American – or Indian if you insist on being politically incorrect - tribe). They based it upon their own language – and sadly because it is a threatened and not widely used language, the Japanese never managed to figure it out.
This reminds me of another story – probably apocryphal – about how the English got some of their public school soldiers to communicate with each in other in French during the First World War. Their French was so terrible that the Germans couldn’t understand a word of it and probably never even recognized it as such! However, since the English soldiers were the products of the same educational background they could understand each other quite clearly . . .
But "Windtalkers", the latest film by Hong Kong action import John Woo, isn’t really about this little known historical footnote. It isn’t even about lots (and I mean lots!) of bloody action and violence in the first ten minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” mode. Instead it is about honor and male friendship.
Nicholas Cage plays Sgt. Joe Enders, yet another of his patented tortured and anguished characters. Enders is a fanatically dedicated soldier – brave, always follows orders – almost to the point of psychopathy. After a particularly brutal skirmish in which his entire squad has been wiped out, Cage has the million dollar wound: the one that would get him sent home without inflicting too much physical damage.
However, Enders manages to con his way back into active service again! See what I mean – we’re talking about the complete antithesis of Captain Yossarian (the slacker protagonist of Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22”, probably the greatest book written in the previous century) here . . .
Something from civilian life is obviously haunting Enders – hence his reluctance to return to it, but it is never precisely spelt out in the movie what this might be.
Soon Enders is assigned to protecting one of the Navajo radio men. Correction, he is assigned to protecting the Navajo code, not the radio man. There is a fine distinction. This means that - if necessary - he must kill the radio man to prevent him from falling into enemy hands and being tortured into giving the secret code away. However, the inevitable happens: slowly (and despite his best efforts) Enders and the radio man he is assigned to become friends . . .
It is this angle that probably appealed to Woo and made him direct “Windtalkers”. This sort of conflict of morality involving friendship an honor was a staple of his earlier Hong Kong action movies such as “Hard Boiled”. When he relocated to Hollywood, this aspect of his work became submerged under the pyrotechnics he loaded unto spectacles such as “Mission Impossible 2” and “Face/Off”.
This central conflict however doesn’t entirely redeem “Windtalkers”.
It is a seriously flawed film. Part of the problem is that the endless battle sequences, competently and expertly done as they are, becomes repetitious and even tedious. In typical Woo style, the director also lays on the melodrama quite thick. Slow motion shots set to rousing symphonic music (fittingly provided by “Titanic” composer James Horner) get tiring. This is a film with no sense of irony whatsoever – and I often found myself wishing I was reading “Catch 22” instead.
Luckily we’re spared the old war movie cliché about the guy showing the photograph of his sweetheart and kid back home dying ten minutes later after showing it to everyone else, but almost every other cliché is repeated here. One of the squad members will be a racist. However, he will be shown the error of his ways when he is later on saved by one of the ethnic minority members he so derisively disparaged. And so on. There is also the overdramatic and extended death scene in which a major protagonist dies in another character’s arms. (However, its done better here than in “Pearl Harbor” – a film which no-one, not even your most hated foes, must be made to see under any circumstances whatsoever!
In its defense it must be said that “Windtalkers” is (a) better than “Pearl Harbor”, (b) shorter than “Pearl Harbor” and (c) has fewer cultural stereotypes than “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”. I was surprised at least once and its central moral conflict did keep me watching throughout. Not as bad as some reviews made it out for sure, because Woo does manage somehow to pull of some of the film’s more unpalatable options.
However, you’d probably be better off reading “Catch 22” – even if it is for the fifth time . . .