“Is there a separate line for press?” I asked the theater
manager after seeing the endless, serpentine mass of moviegoers
waiting anxiously for entry to the screening room. It did
not surprise me that there was such an enthusiastic response
to the sneak preview of John Woo’s new film Windtalkers—after
all, with its delayed release due to the events of September
11th, it had become the filmic manifestation of Waiting
For Godot. All publicity aside, however, I did
not know what to expect.
Once in the theater, surrounded by the gaggle of stoked Woo
fans, I felt like a groupie waiting for Ozzy to take
the stage. The lights dimmed, the throngs silenced, and the
MGM lion roared its prelude. I suppose it’s possible that
I was expecting too much—I mean, it’s John Woo for Christ’s
sake. I love John Woo! But my grandmother always told me,
“Anticipate the least; that way you’ll never be disappointed.”
I should have listened to her.
* * *
Windtalkers opens with savage violence. It is a terrible
battle and men fall one after another. Indeed, the thick, jungle
terrain seems little more than an arena servicing the carnage
as the U.S. Marines and Japanese shoot, stab, slice, and burn
each other. Bodies are strewn endlessly, but we focus on one—alive
in the biological sense, but seeming dead by all other accounts.
This is Joe Enders (Cage).
He desperately fights with his few remaining men, losing
what remains of the humanity in his eyes as they die one by
one. Refusing to retreat, holding steadfast to his orders
like “a good fucking soldier,” Enders finds himself cradling
one of his men, who, as the life trickles from his body in
scarlet rivers, condemns Enders saying, “Goddamn you, Enders.
Explosion. Flash of light.
Enders is now in Pearl Harbor, recuperating from the explosion
that nearly killed him. His left ear is mangled, and in a
brief and unmoving conversation with his pseudo-love interest,
a nurse named Rita (O’Connor), we discover that Enders’
hearing and equilibrium are damaged beyond repair. Wanting—no,
needing—to get back into the field, Enders convinces Rita
to help him cheat on a hearing test—the only obstacle between
him and the War.
Enders is then given a new assignment: to be the bodyguard
of a Navajo code talker named Ben Yahzee (Beach, of
Smoke Signals fame). Yahzee is one of the hundreds
of Navajo recruits that the U.S. military trained to communicate
with a secret code based on the Navajo language. It is now
Enders’ duty to protect Yahzee and the secret code from the
Japanese during the battle of Saipan. But this is not all.
Should Yahzee (and the code) fall into enemy hands, Enders’
orders are to kill him.
Like most Woo films, Windtalkers examines the relationship
that forms between two men of very different worlds. Enders
is still haunted by his past. Yahzee’s organic and spiritual
understanding of the world is in direct conflict with Enders’
calloused, hardened view. But as they fight to stay alive,
they inadvertently fight to understand each other, and ultimately
become friends. Thus, the question becomes, will Enders be
able to kill his friend should the code fall into jeopardy?
Writers John Rice and Joe Batteer (who collaborated
previously on Blown Away) pen an admirable script that
is riveting at its best moments. However, the majority of
the time the action-figure dialogue and the failure to thoroughly
develop any characters other than Enders and Yahzee relegate
it to the heaps of mediocrity. Indeed, it seems to me in making
this film about Enders instead of the code talkers themselves,
the writers overlooked a monumental opportunity. Still, I
can understand their dilemma: Who the hell can find a Cage-caliber
superstar who also happens to be Native American? I suppose
Hollywood’s methodological discrimination came back to bite
them in the ass. But that’s a discussion for another time.
The performances are decent, though none of the actors brought
a character to the screen that I hadn’t seen before. Roger
Willie, making his film debut as Charlie Whitehorse—Yahzee’s
friend and fellow code talker—gives the best performance of
the film. While his screen time oozes with the indecision
of a rookie, his newness provides the much-needed honesty
lacking in Cage’s and Slater’s typical, movie star
interpretations. Stormare of The Big Lebowski,
Emmerich of The Truman Show, Ruffalo
of The Last Castle, and Van Holt of Black
Hawk Down—comprise a potentially mighty supporting cast.
Unfortunately, they each seem to be on a different page—to
be acting in a void for themselves—and the dynamic they could
have provided is noticeably missed.
Woo (as usual) is able to capture the battle scenes with
a kinetic beauty that resembles more closely a ballet than
a war. His camera seems to dance across the terrain, hand
in hand with the energy of the fight, providing a unique blend
of nail-biting action and heart-wrenching humanity. Sadly,
some of these battle scenes go too far. When Slater—playing
the Marine bodyguard assigned to Whitehorse—meets his fate,
it comes in the form of a Samurai sword that sends his head
rolling across the dusty earth. Such violence seems gratuitous,
and took me right out of the story. Furthermore, Woo’s extravagantly
dynamic camera often reduces the film to mere melodrama when
it is juxtaposed with the only moderate words and acting.
All in all, the supreme action makes up with testosterone
what the estrogenic drama lacks. But if you’re expecting an
epic, never-know-what’s-going-to-happen-next Woo film, rent
Face/Off (or better yet, one of his films from Hong
Kong). This film fits nicely in the ranks of the summer blockbuster:
promising, but predictable; sprawling, but conformist; expensive,
But, if you’re like me you’re probably thinking, “So what?
I’d never miss a Woo film!” In that case, pay the seven-fifty.
It’s almost worth it. But be forewarned, the ending to Windtalkers
is contrived at best. Unless you just walked out of the jungle
in a loincloth, and have never seen a movie before—or maybe
if you’ve been sniffing glue for the last couple of decades—you’ve
probably already assumed that Enders does not wind up killing
Yahzee. I mean this is a summer studio picture for the love
of God! But all predictability aside, the end to this film
left me wanting to reach back and strangle the closest applauding
So if you decide to pass your hard-earned bucks to the pimple-faced
guy on the other side of the glass, don’t come crying to me
when the credits roll. If I were you, I’d pay the matinee
price. At least you’ll have a few dollars left over, and there
usually aren’t enough people close by to strangle.
—W. Duke Greenhill