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Windtalkers (R)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with Lion Rock
Official Site
Director: John Woo
Producers: Caroline Macaulay & Arthur Anderson
Written by: John Rice & Joe Batteer
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Peter Stormare, Noah Emmerich, Mark Ruffalo, Brian Van Holt, Martin Henderson, Roger Willie, Frances O’Connor, Christian Slater

Rating: out of 5


“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. Goddamn you…”

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 overdone.

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 audience member.

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

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

It’s worth a full-price ticket.

It’s worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...


Mike Doughty



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