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If, like me, you’re a fan of Hong Kong action director John Woo, you might’ve been wondering where that spark of greatness within him went after he left Hong Kong to continue his career in Hollywood. Basically, apart from the 1997 film Face/Off, none of his US films seems to have had quite the same power to them; the old edge has been dulled somewhat by Hollywood. Woo’s most recent film, Windtalkers, doesn’t do much to quell my fears.

Windtalkers is based upon an authentic though almost entirely forgotten aspect of WW2, namely the US military’s use of a code based upon the Navajo language. The Japanese forces had succeeded in breaking all their other communications codes, and it was hoped that this would prove much harder to crack. Consequently a number of Navajo Indians were drafted into the US army as radiomen, and would have soldiers assigned to them to protect them and prevent them falling into enemy hands.

This, then, is the basic set-up of the film, about three-quarters of which is comprised of a string of battles on the island of Saipan. Nicolas Cage plays Sergeant Joe Enders, still bearing the scars of a recent disastrous mission in the Solomon Islands. He’s assigned to look after new Navajo recruit Ben Yahzee, played by Adam Beach. Alongside these two are Christian Slater as another sergeant, Henderson, assigned to protect another Navajo recruit, played by Roger Willie.

Back at home, meanwhile, is Frances O’Connor’s character Rita (the only even remotely notable female character in the entire film), the nurse who vainly tries to win the affections of Nic Cage; she only appears on screen during the first half hour or so, though, and thereafter only as a voiceover reading the texts of the letters she writes to him, and which he ignores.

Windtalkers is a recognisably “John Woo” film, particularly in its depictions of the relationships between men, its extreme levels of violence (often handled in slow-motion), and the generally unabashed melodrama of it all. Unfortunately, though, the film (reportedly held back by the studio for about a year after it was actually completed) is far from representing Woo at his best.

Too often while watching the film I kept thinking, if only he’d made this in Hong Kong. He’d have been forced to keep it to about 100 minutes and been able to go really over the top with the violence. If you know his Hong Kong films you’ll know how riotously excessive the violence in those films can be; I kept getting the feeling here that Woo wanted to go really over the top, but something was holding him back from doing so.

What hurts the film the worst are the pretty average performances and characterisation. Adam Beach in particular is kind of hard to read; I’m not sure whether he plays Ben Yahzee the way he does because he’s taking the character’s basic naivete into consideration or because he’s just not particularly good. The thin, shabby characterisation doesn’t help overcome the feeling of predictability the film gives off; there comes a certain point early on where you just know something potentially disastrous will happen, and sure enough it does.

Windtalkers was made with honourable intentions; Woo wanted to revive the memory of the Navajo codetalkers and to try and create a positive representation of Native Americans on the screen. It’s not a bad film, really, not as such. It’s just that, from someone with the evident filmmaking skills that John Woo has, we might’ve expected a lot better. Basically, if you like watching things blow up, you will find much to enjoy here as there are many explosions. But if you want a better war film by John Woo, get Bullet In The Head out on video instead.

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About James Russell

  • My own capsule review:

    This is the story of a Marine sargeant assigned to guard a Navajo code talker on Saipan in WWII. The combat scenes are intense and the effects are outstanding, but I never really clicked with any of the characters. The sargeant is conflicted on a couple of levels — he got all the men under his command killed in an earlier battle because he refused to ignore his orders to hold a position, and his orders as a bodyguard are to protect the code, even if it means killing the codetalker to prevent him from being captured. Despite all of Nicholas Cage’s moodiness and grimaces, I never felt his conflict.

    It also tried to claim the Navajo code won the war, and showed the codetalker calling in fire support as proof. Problem is, that obviously important function can be done in the clear. The code was important in giving orders and relaying information up and down the chain of command, namely the non-glamorous stuff.

    John Woo also claims that the movie is an anti-war movie. But what movie that offers an accurate depiction of combat isn’t anti-war – at least in a generic way. And who is pro-war, in a generic sense? War is justified by its purposes, not its conduct. Was Woo seriously claiming that America should not have fought WWII after the Japanese attacked? It’s another movie that achieves technical greatness, but nothing else.