2002, R, 134 min. Directed by John Woo. Starring Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Christian Slater, Peter Stormare, Noah Emmerich, Mark Ruffalo, Roger Willie.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 14, 2002
Windtalkers opens with a near-perfect shot that's so reflective of John Woo's style that you immediately thrill to the possibilities that lie in store. As the camera moves lazy-slow over a tranquil brook, a lone butterfly wings into view and the camera cruises along beside it as it skims the burbling water below, water that is suddenly flush with streaming tendrils of red: blood. Then, out of nowhere, explosions, fire, death. A better metaphor for the eruption of wartime violence in one's homeland would be tough to find, and Woo, the expat Hong Kong auteur who single-handedly changed the course of action film making with his 1986 gangland opus A Better Tomorrow, is a director who manufactures metaphors like other men pump out CO2. His HK-period films – The Killer, Hard-Boiled, Bullet in the Head – were supersaturated with Christian imagery and a brooding, males-only sentimentality where crooks and cops bonded over bullets and blood, and the occasional tequila shot made up for the persistent lack of anything resembling a feminine voice. Woo's club has always had a "No Girls Allowed" sign plastered to its entryway; his gun-slinging protagonists wrench their pious masculine emotions – loyalty, fealty, noblesse oblige – into the open alongside a staccato burst of automatic weapon fire. Since his move to Los Angeles in 1991, Woo's film output has been scattershot, peaking with the wild identi-theft free-for-all of Face/Off before dipping into the thrilling-but-empty Mission: Impossible 2. Windtalkers signifies yet another departure for Woo; it's his first film that had me checking my watch, and it's mired in a shabby script that piles layer upon layer of Action Man cliché atop wooden dialogue and a shifting tone that falls far short of the peculiarly moral amorality of his best work. Cage is Marine Sgt. Joe Enders, whose presence alongside that bloody Solomon Islands stream was a prelude to the slaughter of his entire unit by the Japanese; with a busted eardrum and leaking existential shell-shock and self-loathing like hot air from a C.O., he's amped to get back to the front, if only to track down the round with his name on it, and thereby quell his self-destructive demons. Contrary to Captain Willard's Apocalypse Now dictum – "Everybody gets what they want; I wanted a mission and for my sins they gave me one" – Enders instead gets to guard the Navajo "codetalker" Ben Yahzee (Beach, of indie hit Smoke Signals) as U.S. forces move into the gory hills of Saipan. The Navajo language was used as an unbreakable code to stump the Japanese cryptographers, and Enders' mission is to protect the code at all costs, even to the extreme of killing his charge should he fall into enemy hands. Woo does well with the central conceit of the danger inherent in allowing oneself to bond too closely to others in a war zone, but apart from Enders and Yahzee, Windtalkers is sorely lacking any identifiable characters (usually a Woo trademark). Stock WWII clichés rule the battlefield, which is dotted by sweeping battle scenes that simply don't hold up to Woo's more intimate killers' ballets. A one-note love interest crops up for Enders from time to time, but goes nowhere, and James Horner's blustery, stereotypical war score adds nothing new. Woo's mainstreaming his vision here, and though Windtalkers has its moments of precious, awful clarity, it can't hold a candle to the man's earlier blood-soaked balletics.