starring Nicholas Cage, Christian Slater, and Adam Beach
by Stephen Notley
You wouldn't think John Woo could make a bland war movie, but he did, and it's Windtalkers.
Granted, Woo's in a tough position. His Hong Kong style of filmmaking -- oversaturated reality, huge emotions, double-fisted slomo-assisted gunfights-- has become the standard language of American action movies. If he makes a movie using his signature style, it's going to look like everything else out there.
So, for Windtalkers, he downplays his John Wooness as much as possible. Sure, there's a lot of rat-a-tat-tat, and explosions, and bullet squibs -- you know, war stuff, American soldiers fighting and dying much as we've seen them do in what seems like a million recent war movies -- Pearl Harbor, Behind Enemy Lines, Black Hawk Down, Hart's War, and We Were Soldiers.
But there's none of Woo's distinctive stamp, none of his zeroing in on the telling detail, the burst of concussive force. Instead, it's just super-wide shots of lots of soldiers and tanks and explosions, with the occasional computer-generated plane flying overhead dropping computer-generated bombs. The resemblance to Mel Gibson's We Were Soldiers is particularly acute; both films feature American soldiers storming a Japanese island, and you could swap 40% of the combat footage and never even notice. There's just nothing new here.
So, without anything particularly interesting to offer in the depicting-war department, Woo had better have something pretty special lined up in the what-it's-all-about department, right? This movie must have some pretty kick-ass themes, right?
Frustratingly, not really. For Windtalkers, the theme seems to be, "Hey, look, everybody -- the Navajo!" Which is fine, awesome, good for them, they did their part, but once the viewer has duly acknowledged the existence of the Navajo, is there anything particularly telling or unusual about the Navajos' contribution to the war? No. They're radio operators. Maybe they smudge a little ash on their faces before lights out, maybe they speak a little Navajo here and there, but basically, they're Marines. Furthermore, it's Nick Cage who's the protagonist, so the two codetalkers are mostly just along for the ride anyway.
So, since Windtalkers doesn't really have anything to say about the Navajo except that they were there, it defaults to a bunch of half-themes, none of which animates the full movie. There's a half-hearted stab at a prejudice-in-the-army thing (already done in Hart's War), where the jerk who hassles our Navajo hero (Adam Beach) later learns to respect him. There's an unconvincing terrible-decision thing, where Nick Cage has orders to kill Adam Beach if the Japs capture him. And there's a weak comrades-in-arms thing, where we kinda-sorta-not-really get to know some of the odd characters who make up the squad. All okay themes, all done better in other films.
There are some graces. Adam Beach is likable and grounded as codetalker Ben Yahzee, gamely doing what he's told, saving the day when called upon to radio in that crucial air strike or to inform the American artillery that they're shelling Marines. Roger Willie is also good, though tragically underused, as the other codetalker Charles Whitehorse, a guy who doesn't say much but has all kinds of business going on in the eyes.
But mostly, Windtalkers comes across mostly as a war movie retread avec
Navajo. So, rather than actually seeing the movie, just note the fact that
Navajo codebreakers did brave service in the War in the Pacific, and then
go on about your business.