Dir: John Woo. US. 2002. 134mins.
Finally the war may be over. The surge of expensive World War II movies which was kicked off by Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line four years ago now looks like it's coming to an end with John Woo's often admirable but ultimately redundant Windtalkers. Taking a slim wartime fact as its central conceit - hundreds of Navajo Americans were enlisted to transmit a secret military code based on their native language - the film is a relentlessly gruesome slice of combat which achieves visual and visceral action highs without ever reaching any emotional ones. MGM is pulling out all the stops to ensure that the film is a success when it opens this Friday (June 14). However, adult male audiences will respond with only polite interest before moving on to next week's Minority Report, Men In Black II and the other, less earnest summer tentpole movies. Women will stay away.
Woo choreographs the battle with his customary zeal and spectacle, but the war-is-hell action sequences which have been seen before so graphically in everything from Private Ryan to We Were Soldiers feel stale here. The film was finished well over a year ago and was delayed first from last summer and then from November in light of Sept 11. These delays could have crippled the film's chances: in a post-Sept 11 world, the heroics of the second world war - as MGM's Hart's War has already demonstrated - are now of less interest to global audiences than the covert war against maverick factions in contemporary settings (see The Sum Of All Fears, Black Hawk Down and Spy Game).
Set in 1944, the film opens on the Navajo reservation as Ben Yahzee (Beach) leaves his wife and child to sign up. Alongside his lifelong friend Charlie Whitehorse (Willie), he trains to be a "code talker" on Hawaii. Concurrently, Woo also follows the story of marine Joe Enders(Cage), who is recovering from a traumatising battle on the Solomon Islands in which his entire platoon was wiped out. Despite severe damage to his hearing, the shell-shocked Enders longs to return to battle and passes a hearing test with the help of his nurse Rita (O'Connor). He is subsequently assigned to protect Yahzee in the battle of Saipan - on the proviso that if Yahzee might fall into enemy hands, he should kill him first. The code must be protected "at all costs." A fellow marine Ox Anderson (Slater) is assigned to protect Whitehorse.
After this concise set-up, the remainder of the film takes place on Saipan kicking off with a breathtaking battle sequence as the troops land on the island and make inroads into the enemy defences. Here, Woo's technical skills become brilliantly clear and the sheer scale of the battle recalls those monumental 1960s and 1970s war films like Battle Of Britain, The Longest Day and Tora! Tora! Tora! blended together with the fashionable gore and splatter which Woo has always embraced and which Spielberg made acceptable in mainstream war movies.
From then on, however, the battles becomes wearying, despite occasional scenes of inter-troop bonding, and burgeoning friendships between Ox and Charlie and Joe and Ben. Of course, finally both marines are called to the test: Can they kill their new-found friends for the sake of the code' Or will their personal loyalties and deep humanity prevent them' After a few wrong moves, Cage's career is back on track with Windtalkers in which he delivers a portrait in war-ravaged melancholy which is truly touching. Beach - an accomplished native American actor who played the lead role in Smoke Signals - is also a strong, spiritual presence amid the carnage.
Would that the script had given these two performers more emotional baggage to carry. Cage's relationship with Rita has been chopped down from the original cut of the film (early trailers feature love scenes between the two which don't feature in the final film) and could perhaps have given the film something romantic for the audience to cling to amid the bullets. As it is, O'Connor, who is now a Hollywood leading lady, has only a very small on-screen part (and the occasional voiceover) which feels as superfluous as some of the brutal combat itself.
Prod cos: Lion Rock, MGM Pictures
US dist: MGM
Int'l dist: 20th Century Fox/MGM; President Films (France & Italy)
Exec prod: CO Erickson
Prods: John Woo, Terence Chang, Tracie Graham, Alison Rozenweig
Scr: John Rice, Joe Batteer
Cinematography: Jeffrey Kimball
Prod des: Holger Gross
Ed: Steven Kemper, Jeff Gullo, Tom Rolf
Mus: James Horner
Main cast: Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Peter Stormare, Noah Emmerich, Mark Ruffalo, Brian Van Holt, Martin Henderson, Roger Willie, Christian Slater, Frances O'Connor, Jason Isaacs