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With: Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Christian Slater, Roger Willie, Frances O'Connor, Peter Stormare, Noah Emmerich, Mark Ruffalo, Brian Van Holt, Martin Henderson, Jason Isaacs, Billy Morts (William Morts), Cameron Thor, Kevin Cooney, Holmes Osborne
Written by: Joe Batteer, John Rice
Directed by: John Woo
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive graphic war violence, and for language
Running Time: 134
Date: 06/14/2002

Windtalkers (2002)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Not on Speaking Terms

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

My admiration for director John Woo sometimes eclipses any critical thought. I still stand by my enthusiastic appraisals of Hard Target (1993) and Mission: Impossible II (2000) -- not that they were good movies by any stretch, but -- by God -- they were real John Woo movies! They looked and felt like John Woo movies. They smelled and tasted like John Woo movies.

For Woo I will toil very hard to see his artistry at work. I will struggle as long and hard as I can to understand how and why he made certain choices. I will always give him the benefit of the doubt. But though I did all these things through his new film Windtalkers -- which opens today in Bay Area theaters -- in the end I just can't deny that it's not very good.

First let me insist that I do not blame Woo. I blame screenwriters John Rice and Joe Batteer, whose other screen credits together consist of the awful 1994 bomb movie Blown Away, with Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones, a forgotten Dennis Hopper-directed film called Chasers, starring Erika Eleniak, and a made-for-TV thriller called Curiosity Kills, starring C. Thomas Howell.

Maybe it's just me, but I'd call that "three strikes and you're out."

Rice and Batteer have stumbled upon the intriguing notion of writing a story about the Navajo code-talkers of World War II. Navajo language was used to broadcast sensitive information over radio airwaves. The Japanese had no precedent for it and never cracked it. In effect, it helped the U.S. win the war.

In addition, the writers used the idea of American soldiers protecting the code-talkers as if they were machines, computers with essential information inside. Nicolas Cage plays one such soldier, a sergeant named Joe Enders, who barely survived a previous mission and has damaged his inner ear. Frances O'Connor plays a nurse who takes a liking to him and lets him go slightly before he's ready.

Enders lives with -- and is haunted by -- the deaths of many of his men on his conscience. He is assigned to protect a Navajo named Private Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach). Christian Slater plays the comparatively well-adjusted sergeant "Ox" who is assigned Private Charles Whitehorse (newcomer Roger Willie). They are to protect the code at any cost.

Enders immediately takes the position that he should not get close to Yahzee in the event that Enders may have to kill him in a desperate situation.

Once our writers explain the situation to us, and throw in the expected scenes of American prejudice against the Navajo, the idea is all but dropped. We see the Navajo enacting a few rituals and code-talking in the heat of battle, but the story is squarely centered on the White Man.

Woo probably intends for Enders' demons to drive the movie, but unfortunately, Rice and Batteer's hackneyed script constantly gets in the way. The movie plays in an endless series of marching scenes, surprise attacks, and one soldier risking his life to save another, followed by another marching scene and another surprise attack with one soldier risking his life to save another, etc.

Only one battle scene really works, when Yahzee poses as a Japanese soldier with Enders as his prisoner in order to break into the enemy camp and steal a radio. The scene has an idea behind it, rather than the usual mindless surprise attacks.

In an attempt to break away from his limited "action director" label, Woo shoots most of the battle footage in an amateurish hand-held manner, the kind of work that his sixth-rate imitators (like Michael Bay and Brett Ratner) usually turn in.

Only a few vintage Woo moments emerge, as when Enders gets drunk on sake, walks through a graveyard, and begins "hearing" the many ghosts of his past. The camera whirls around him, cutting every couple of seconds like hatchet blades, until he collapses.

Moments like that exhilarated me, but then the movie drops back into its brain-dead routine.

Back in 1990, Woo delivered his masterpiece and one of the greatest war movies ever made with Bullet in the Head, and he did it without betraying his signature style. I can't blame Woo for wanting to try something different, but sometimes "different" is just the same thing.

I really wish I could have loved this movie. But now that reality has set in, I'll just slink out of the theater, avoid Mr. Woo's gaze, and hope his next one will be better.

DVD Details: MGM/UA counted on John Woo's hard-core fan base to justify their release of the three-disc Special Director's Edition of Windtalkers ($39.98), a film that flopped both critically and financially in the summer of 2002. This version adds some 20 minutes back into the film and contains three commentary tracks, one from Woo and producer Terence Chang, one from actors Nicolas Cage and Christian Slater, and one from actor Roger Willie and WWII Navajo codetalker Albert Smith. The new version improves on the theatrical version by rounding it out and giving it a more languid pace, though the overwritten script can't really be fixed. The other two discs feature tons of extras, from documentaries on codetalkers to special effects demonstrations.

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