starring Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Peter Stormare, Noah Emmerich
screenplay by John Rice & Joe Batteer
directed by John Woo
by Walter Chaw A few minutes into John Woo's Windtalkers and the sad realization that Woo has become only the latest director ripping off the "John Woo Film" dawns on a long-time fan. Neophytes to Woo will probably think the director hasn't fallen all that far from Face/Off and Mission: Impossible II; fanboys who've seen Bullet in the Head and The Killer will wonder what the maestro was thinking this time around.
Marine Sgt. Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) fights in WWII's Pacific Theater when he's badly injured and his entire company's wiped out by the evil Japanese. Sent to a hospital--where droning doll-eyed nurse Rita (Frances O'Connor, whose low-key, catatonic style sounds as though it were recorded a few decibels lower) becomes the film's sole "significant" female presence through her sleepily voiceover'd letters to Joe--the good Marine understandably aches for a quick return to some kind of action. He gets his wish in the form of an assignment to "guard" a Native American "codetalker" named Ben Yahzee (a very fine Adam Beach)--the 'Woovian' twist being that the code Ben knows (based on the Navajo tongue) is more important than Ben himself. As Joe and Ben (and a complimentary dyad composed of Christian Slater and Roger Willie) fight their way across 1943 Saipan to a chorus of explosions and Rambo-esque moments of improbable bloodshed, the time comes at last when Joe discovers that the bonds of friendship may be more important than the duty to country.
Windtalkers is a mess of borrowed images, images that should belong to an auteurist discussion reduced to theft by Woo's mishandling of their relevance. There is ear violence, the unmotivated slow-motion, the shameless fetishization of gun barrels (larger and more erect than ever here), the slow motion birds in flight (for that moment of spiritual reflection in the midst of the carnage; see also: The Thin Red Line), the awful dialogue, and the doubling of ambivalent protagonist and antagonist. There is the Woovian stand-off with firearms held on one another in a tragic pairing, the standard concerns of friendship and honour, and the conspicuous lack of women to muddy the homoerotic cock opera that occupies all of the director's films.
Sadly missing are immediacy (Windtalkers is Woo's first genuinely boring picture since 1990's Once a Thief), urgency, and suture. There's no real question as to what's going to happen with Joe and Ben, and as a result, there's no real question as to whether some outside influence (i.e., the war) will interfere with the playing out of the central tragedy. There is a decided lack of a moral dilemma as well: When Joe is given his assignment, he is shown a picture of a Native American soldier captured and tortured to death by the Japanese, thus making Joe's task of putting a bullet in the head of his charge should the Japanese close in both sensible and humane. Windtalkers missteps badly when it squanders a very "Woo" moment in which Joe has to explain the dilemma to Ben and promise to keep one bullet in the chamber should the unthinkable inevitably happen--such an exchange is employed to great effect by James Cameron in Aliens, and its absence here calls into question the credibility of the rest of Windtalkers. Most disappointing about that failure is that what was once a bit of spice in a film like The Killer is in Windtalkers made the centre around which this ponderous production revolves.
Woo imagined after his A Better Tomorrow II (1987) a third film in a trilogy (one eventually completed without Woo by once-partner/benefactor Tsui Hark) that would be a quintessential Vietnam War film told from the Chinese perspective. Thwarted by the dissolution of his alliance with Hark, Woo went ahead with his war-movie ambition with the flawed but stunning Bullet in the Head (1990), which told the tale of three friends torn apart by the humiliation and ugliness of war. Often referred to as "the Chinese Deer Hunter," it exceeds Michael Cimino in terms of the very operatic intimacy of the trio's despair and can be read for profit as one of the more compelling anti-violence pictures to come out of the Vietnam War and, particularly, from Woo's notoriously violent oeuvre.
Windtalkers represents, then, an opportunity for Woo to return to the war genre with a huge budget and his stable of American schlock actors (Slater and Cage), and what emerges is a lost movie misplaced amongst endless meaningless explosions that are so badly choreographed and curiously detached that it seems impossible this is the same meticulous Woo who regularly took up to two weeks to shoot a single action sequence. The finale for A Better Tomorrow II, the opening of Hard-Boiled, and the seminal church sequence of The Killer remain very possibly the finest examples of action film directing in the history of the cinema, distinguished not for their excesses, but for the meaningfulness of the action on a metaphoric and literal level.
What distinguishes Windtalkers is its utter predictability, its unbreachable distance from its audience, and the unmistakable taint of a very personal project hindering the instincts and sensibilities of a brilliant director. It isn't that Windtalkers is bad just in comparison to Woo's very fine late-period Hong Kong films--Windtalkers is bad even in comparison to Woo's Hollywood output. It is the director's weaknesses (dialogue, narrative sense) with none of his compensatory strengths (effective probing of the masculine bond, coherent and dazzling action sequences). And though nowhere near the worst, Windtalkers is probably the most disappointing film of the year. Originally published: June 14, 2002.
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