"...Windtalkers just doesn't live up to its potential."
Director: John Woo
Producer: John Woo, Terence Chang, Tracie Graham, Alison Rosenzweig
Writer: Joe Batteer, John Rice
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Christian Slater, Noah Emmerich, Emily Mortimer
Running Time: 134 min.
Plot: On December 8, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan. For the next several years, U.S. forces were fully engaged in battle throughout the Pacific, taking over islands one by one in a slow progression towards mainland Japan. During this brutal campaign, the Japanese were continually able to break coded military transmissions, dramatically slowing U.S. progress. In 1942, several hundred Navajo Americans were recruited as Marines and trained to use their language as code. Marine Joe Enders is assigned to protect Ben Yahzee - a Navajo code talker, the Marines' new secret weapon. Enders' orders are to protect his code talker, but if Yahzee should fall into enemy hands, he's to "protect the code at all costs." Against the backdrop of the horrific Battle of Saipan, when capture is imminent, Enders is forced to make a decision: if he can't protect his fellow Marine, can he bring himself to kill him to protect the code?
NUMSKULL'S REVIEW: World War II: Navajo code talkers are employed by the U.S. military to relay coordinates in their native language, which Japanese code breakers are unable to decipher. Their efforts are crucial to U.S. victories in the Pacific; 'wonder what John "The Only Good In'jun Is A Dead In'jun" Wayne would say to that? It's a promising premise, but the screenplay's failure to make the most of it and the cheesy dramatic scenes result in little more than John Woo Does A War Movie. Granted, it COULD be worse...a LOT worse...but Windtalkers just doesn't live up to its potential.
Nicolas Cage...not as good as he was in Face/Off (and Travolta was better in that one anyway)...stars as Joe Enders, the tormented, battle-scarred Marine assigned to protect baby-faced code talker Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach). Should Ben or any other code talker fall into enemy hands, Enders must kill him on the spot to prevent the Japanese from learning the code...the kind of moral dilemma that gives John Woo a creative hard-on. A portion of the spotlight falls on Peter "Ox" Anderson (Christian Slater, who probably had an easier time than most with boot camp training after being in prison so much) and "his" code talker, Charles Whitehorse (Roger Willie). They have a lame bit going where they both play wind instruments (a harmonica and some Native American wooden thing...not sure exactly what it's called and don't want to say anything as pedestrian as "flute") and eventually try to combine skills to complement each other's music.
Speaking of lame bits...hell, there's tons of 'em. All of the war and war-based movies I'd seen prior to Windtalkers could be counted on one hand with the thumb missing, yet I was still able to pick out the film's many cliches.
There's the big dumb racist guy who picks on our Navajo friends (Enders is supposed to protect Yahzee's code talking ass, yet he stands idly by while this asshole bludgeons him with his rifle and threatens to kill him).
There's the hyperventilating Greek guy...the "special needs" character...who creates extra work for his fellow Marines (maybe I'm just an ignorant civilian who doesn't know shit about shit where military matters are concerned, but it seems to me that someone who can't breathe properly under intense stress really shouldn't be placed in the front lines of combat).
There's the obligatory chatting 'round the campfire scene ("If I don't make it back, give this ring to my wife" and that sort of thing).
There's the even MORE obligatory love interest for the main character (Frances O'Connor as a nurse at the naval base where he was sent to recuperate after a botched mission at the beginning of the film...thank God he doesn't have misty-eyed daydreams about her while his comrades are gunning down enemy troops and blowing shit up).
There's the emotional turmoil of seeing the impact of battle on the other side's civilians (A little girl is crying because her daddy got killed? No problem...just feed her some chocolate).
There's the Marines discussing their plans for the future once the war is over (Did you know that "Ox" Anderson discovered "a Swedish concoction called yogurt" before the rest of the American public?).
There's the family man fondly describing his loved ones to his comrades ("He's quite a character," says Ben of his son George Washington Yahzee, with all the passion and enthusiasm of a 68-year old narcoleptic painting a fence).
There's the bonding over booze scene where Enders cracks open a case of sake, not bothering to wonder if it may have been poisoned, and proceeds to get drunk off his ass (Cage's acting here is less than stellar...a LOT less, in fact. How ironic that he won an Oscar for portraying an alcoholic in "Leaving Las Vegas").
And, uh, so on.
Enders's lapsed Catholicism is more of a John Wooism, and not the only one, but the director had sense enough to cut down on his crazed, gun-blazing heroics a bit (not entirely, mind you) in favor of more realistic combat. The shootouts in a movie like Hard Boiled convey a sense of organized chaos; here, it's more like chaotic organization. Woo's penchant for lengthy, elaborate action sequences generally lends itself well to the war genre, though there is still some groan-inducing implausibility here and there (Ben is able to easily cross over to the Japanese side of a heated battlefield with Joe posing as his prisoner, simply because he looks like "one of them." Um...yeah). Despite the huge amount of violence here, Woo does show some restraint in that regard as well as others; Enders's ear injury threatens to become an agonizingly convenient plot device that undermines his efforts, as if on cue, at the worst possible moment...but, it is thankfully kept in check for the most part and merely provides an additional touch to the character.
At the least, Windtalkers should establish John Woo as someone who can do more than just action movies (which he apparently doesn't want to do anymore anyway). Don't let my pissing and moaning sway you too much; it's a decent flick. If you wanna see it, then by all means do so.
NUMSKULL'S RATING: 7/10