|Nicolas Cage||Joe Enders|
|Adam Beach||Ben Yahzee|
|Frances O'Connor||Rita Swelton|
|Christian Slater||Peter 'Ox' Henderson|
|Noah Emmerich||Charles 'Chick' Rogers|
|Directed by||John Woo|
The Navajo language code that baffled the Japanese makes one of the great stories to come out of World War II. Unfortunately, it has not made one of the great movies. Squeezed through the Hollywood wringer with an Anglo-centric approach and hung out to dry under the flagging inspiration of action impresario John Woo, the romance and cultural complexity of the codetalker story gets flattened into a body-count bonanza. The Navajo angle is nailed to a cross of war movie clich?s and left for dead amidst the exploding shells and withering machine gun fire of this post-Private Ryan extravaganza of war-is-hell-but-ain?t-it-beautiful excess. Windtalkers makes Pearl Harbor look like Henry V.
Woo starts promisingly, with his camera prowling the mist-shrouded beauty of Monument Valley before introducing Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach, Smoke Signals) as he says goodbye to his wife and infant son and climbs aboard the bus with pal Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie). We then shift to our dominant story, the profoundly uninteresting tale of Marine Sgt. Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage), because Hollywood wisdom requires a white male star at the center of a war epic. With a signature flourish, Woo shows a butterfly fluttering above a still swamp, and then streaks the water with blood and a floating corpse.
Joe?s platoon is pinned down, and his Marines die one by one like actors in community theater seizing their golden moment on the stage. All this leaves Joe pretty shaken and with a shattered eardrum, and he is sent to a military hospital to recover. The main purpose of this is to humiliate Frances O?Connor (The Importance of Being Earnest), a good actress marginalized into a role of demeaning irrelevance. With her help Joe cons his way back onto active duty, where he is rewarded with what ? An assignment to babysit Navajo codetalker Ben.
"I?d rather kill Japs," he grumps. His CO tells him the orders are not negotiable, and makes it clear that the job is to protect the code, not the codetalker. If capture is imminent, Joe is not to let his man be taken alive. The historical underpinnings of this are questionable, but the idea is to provide dramatic tension. Joe can?t let himself get too friendly with his charge because he may have to kill him, and we all know the probabilities of that situation coming up before the end of the movie. Anyway, there?s no danger of Joe getting friendly. A dourer sonofabitch never wore khaki. He?s surly with everyone, including poor Frances O?Connor, who at least gets to mail in the rest of her performance in the form of letters to the front. And he needn?t have worried about not killing enough Japanese, either. Nobody wades more heedlessly in to the line of fire. Machine guns blazing with seemingly endless ammo clips, Cage single-handedly reduces the Japanese population of Saipan by at least two-thirds. Joe is a soldier whose moral dilemma is that he always follows orders, a phrase linked in our collective consciousness with Nazi guilt at the Nurenberg trials ; but here, with clear-cut orders to ensure unbroken code communication, he flings himself and his charge into harm?s way with the recklessness of a twelve-year-old on a bumper-car ride.
In the movie?s most promising diversion, Woo takes a few moments for the spiritual side of things, setting up a juxtaposition of Ben?s Navajo religious rituals with the trappings of the Catholicism in which both he and Joe were raised but have left behind. But the opportunity to make a deeper foray into Navajo cultural territory, and to explore the story of how the code was developed and used, is sacrificed to the urgencies of protracted battle scenes. Woo made his reputation in his Hong Kong period with an almost devotional dedication to violence, and in his best movies there is a sacramental quality to it. But here, as he plugs his signature moments of birds in flight and men with guns at each other?s temples into the overall grid of choreographed violence, the polish remains but the passion seems to have gone out of his core of belief.
Part of the problem is Cage, an actor whose tank ran dry in the last millennium and who has been running on fumes. An anguished Nic Cage is not a pretty sight, and Woo indulges in full-screen close-ups of his tortured sneers. In general, Cage?s emotions run a course between anguish and sleep, with a detour, or maybe it?s a synthesis, into a drunk scene. His costar, Beach, is a handsome and likable fellow who may or may not be an actor but gets little chance to settle the question here. They are complemented by the more interesting codetalker/protector team of Christian Slater and Roger Willie, who learn to make beautiful music together. And the platoon is filled out with WWII movie types that include a cabbie from Brooklyn (a very good Mark Ruffalo) and a racist Southern redneck (Noah Emmerich). Movie-going pits results against expectations. The deep sense of disappointment at Windtalkers is rooted not just in the clunkiness of the storytelling, but the squandered potential for something special from this rich vein of subject matter. Those insights remain as impenetrable as the Navajo code.
© Text 2002 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be