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     "Sir, I really have to go to the bathroom."

Nicholas Cage (left) and Adam Beach (right) in John Woo's Windtalkers.
Year: 2002
Director: John Woo  
Producer: John Woo, Terence Chang, Tracie Graham, Alison Rosenzweig
Writer: John Rice, Joe Bateer
Cast: Nicholas Cage, Adam Beach, Christian Slater, Peter Stormare, Noah Emmerich, Mark Ruffalo, Brian Van Holt, Martin Henderson, Roger Willie, Frances O'Connor, Jason Issacs
The Skinny: While an entertaining and competently made action drama, Windtalkers channels very little Woo besides small flashes of his pet themes and lots of action sequences. This isn't a bad movie, but it's a hellaciously terrible John Woo film.
by Kozo:

     John Woo's latest US flick allows him to join the ranks of such fantastic directors as Richard Donner and John McTiernan. What that means is he's now powerful enough to make big-budget Hollywood films, and make them competently. What he can't do is lift those films beyond the words laid out on the page, or bring them above the genre to which they belong. Windtalkers is a competent, and even entertaining action drama. What it isn't is exceptional or even noteworthy. To wit: it could have been directed by someone else.
     Nicholas Cage stars as Joe Enders, a shell-shocked marine who was the sole survivor of a doomed detail in the Pacific Theater 1943. In self-loathing mode, he persuades a comely nurse (Frances O'Connor) into helping him pass the medical, allowing him to get back to what he truly wants to do: killing the Japanese. However, his superiors have another idea. He's supposed to babysit a "codetalker", Navajo Indians who use their unique language as a code against foreign intelligence. The orders are simple: protect the code. So, if the codetalker is in danger of being captured, off the codetalker. Easy as pie.
     Or not. The whole "kill my buddy or not" argument is the crux of Windtalkers, along with the standard war themes of brotherhood and the futility of violence. Joe's codetalker is Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), a gee-whiz rookie who enlisted to fight the good fight. Ben knows that Joe has his back. What he doesn't know is that Joe has a gun pointed at it. Still, he tries to make friends with the rough-and-rude Joe, who's looking for Japanese bodycount payback. But, there will come a time when Joe must make the fateful choice: kill my buddy or not?
     Every message and pearl of wisdom that Windtalkers intends to impart is printed on the page in big, bold letters. Like most Hollywood war flicks, verbalized epiphanies and underlined dialogue make everything clear in easy-to-read block lettering. That's fine for the film's central relationship (between Ben and Joe), or even that of Ox Anderson (Christian Slater), who must shadow codetalker Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie). However, when revealing dialogue is given to the stock characters (AKA: sympathetic cannon fodder), Windtalkers screeches to a halt. The time-outs for peripheral characters (like Noah Emmerich's racist soldier) are as interesting as Nicholas Cage's stubble - which is to say they're not interesting at all. In fact, they're hackneyed and full of quasi-sentimental lip service. Even worse, some of that lip service is grossly anachronistic, and the fine work of the Politically Correct Writers of America™.
     At least the action is well-staged, if not too rousing in its depiction. This isn't Saving Private Ryan. Grittiness and the dizzy fear of actual warfare are not imparted by John Woo's camera. He reins in his trademark slow-motion and cinematic histrionics, but everything still smacks of staged action and not helter-skelter chaos. The cinematography is a little too pleasing for a war film (though not as obnoxiously prettified as Pearl Harbor's glossy production), and James Horner's uninspired score swells at the most unnecessary of moments. Actual tension is noticeably missing from Windtalkers. Had it been there, the film would probably have been more effective.
     Still, the film is competently made and will likely please the casual viewer. However, it's not something that really needs John Woo to direct it. His best work has been in gangster films, where his overdone theatrics added a "romantic" aspect to the grim genre trappings. In Hollywood, his overdone theatrics are no different than the overdone theatrics of a Michael Bay or Richard Donner. It's just Hollywood gloss on a Hollywood script that works overtime to simplify the exposition. The real life details of the Navajo codetalkers get handed out efficiently, but little is actually explored beyond the most obvious issues (they got no respect, and they could have been killed by their bodyguards). Woo can't really bring anything to the subject matter because it's pretty much all there in black-and-white. Themes of brotherhood? It's in the script. Characters haunted by violence? It's in the script. Writers John Rice and Joe Bateer haven't written a script; they've written a blueprint.
     But Windtalkers is OK. It's a rather atypical Hollywood war flick that could never compare to Saving Private Ryan, Platoon or numerous other post-Vietnam war films. It's well-made with good production values, and the acting is decent. Nicholas Cage turns in his usual solid work, and his usual moments of overacting. Adam Beach fares well while in "gee-whiz" mode, though his handling of the more emotional scenes could have been improved. And the battle sequences look mighty expensive. Those with extensive Dolby Digital setups will be pleased with what Windtalkers brings to the table. Your home theater will get a workout. You can impress your friends and neighbors. And you can impress your sister, who still thinks Christian Slater is cute. Everybody wins. (Kozo 2002)

Availability: DVD (USA)
Region 1 NTSC
MGM/UA Home Video
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen / Pan and Scan
English Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1

images courtesy of MGM/UA Home Video Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen