The biggest obstacle that keeps John Woo’s “Windtalkers” from being a great movie isn’t the subject matter, but the man behind the camera. (The subject itself is worth a whole mini-series detailing the events and history of.) John Woo is, to put it honestly, just not the right man for this movie.
“Windtalkers” tells the little-known contributions of the Navajo Native Americans (or Indians for you politically incorrect folks out there) who joined the fight against the Japanese in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Because of the complex nature of their oral language, the Navajo code proved unbreakable for the Japanese, and the Navajos proved to be an invaluable asset to the Americans as they pushed toward Japan island-by-island in 1943. Nicolas Cage (“Con Air”) stars as Joe Enders, a soldier who is physically and emotionally scarred by the lost of his whole unit, who is given the task of watching over Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), one of the Navajo codetalkers. Joe’s mission is simple: keep Ben safe, and if he can’t, kill Ben to keep him from falling into enemy hands.
The Navajo’s contributions to the Pacific War are little known, and the movie does give some needed (and a long time in coming) attention to that facet of World War II. But John Woo, who has done some of my favorite movies (“The Killer” and “Hardboiled”) is simply not the man for the job. Why? Because John Woo is a director who relies on style and “coolness” to wow the audience, and war movies (especially World War II) are not fertile ground for stylish and “cool”-looking material. What John Woo doesn’t possess — the ability to make his movies as realistic and gritty as possible — is the same talent directors like Steven Spielberg and Terrence Malick do have, which is why their own World War II efforts (“Saving Private Ryan” and “The Thin Red Line” respectively) have been so artistically successful. Why? Simply put, they are on the mark about the war — it’s cold, it’s hard, it’s bloody, and it is not cool. John Woo, for all of his skills as a director, simply can’t overcome this handicap.
The above being said, “Windtalkers” has the makings of a decent film. Its action is very loud, violent, and bloody — all Woo trademarks, things that the man excels at. Nicolas Cage’s portrayal of Joe Enders is on the mark; he’s hell-bent to get himself killed at all cost and his “me against the world” personality rings true. Adam Beach (“Smoke Signals”), as Cage’s charge, is also good; the young man’s happy-go-lucky Navajo is endearing and likeable, and his transformation as the realities of war hits home is well done. Also good is the chemistry between Christian Slater and Roger Willie, as the other bodyguard/Navajo unit in the movie. Slater and Willie have an easy rapport that Cage and Beach sometimes has trouble with.
All that said, “Windtalkers” fails in a number of other areas. Frances O’Connor (“A.I.”), as Cage’s love interest, has very little to do, and her character seems like a throwaway role easily cast off in favor of more explosions and gunfire. The rest of the cast is also uninspired, and every character, from the racist to the New Yorker who dreams of owning a cab, seem to come directly from Stereotype Central Casting.
The movie, for all of its exploding squibs and ear-splitting violence, sometimes has to fight director John Woo’s trademark slow-motion hero-kills-2-dozen-villains-with-one-shot scenes. Once again, I can’t help but feel that John Woo was simply not the right man for this movie. Even Woo’s trademark themes of male bonding, brotherhood, loyalty and duty, comes across as tedious and forced. Also, there doesn’t seem to be any urgency to the film, as its plot seems to exist only to move the actors from one battle to another; there isn’t a global “vision” to the war as a whole. And at one point I swear the deserts of New Mexico replaced Saipan Island…
After the watermark established by World War II films like “Ryan” and the HBO mini-series “Band of Brothers,” “Windtalkers” is just too below average. Despite its high bodycount, its 2-hour running length seems to consist of nothing but a series of battles that, after a while, gets repetitive. Under the direction of another director, perhaps “Windtalkers” might have turned out differently. John Woo is good, but he’s not this good.
John Woo (director) / John Rice, Joe Batteer (screenplay)
CAST: Nicolas Cage …. Sergeant Joe Enders
Adam Beach …. Private Ben Yahzee
Peter Stormare …. Gunny Hjelmstad
Noah Emmerich …. Chick Rogers