Director John Woo is a product of the Hong Kong film industry where he learned his trade and made a reputation for violent action films executed with virtuosic filmic technique. He’s been working in Hollywood for a decade now, his biggest popular successes being Mission Impossible II and Face/Off. In Windtalkers, Woo applies his skills to a fresh story placed in a standard World War II war flick format and, while not coming up with anything new or particularly original within that long cliched niche, he makes the genre sing like a chorus on steroids.
When the Japanese were breaking every code that the U.S. could come up with during the war in the Pacific, the Marines recruited Navajo Americans who were trained as code-talkers in code based on their native language. (It was a code that was never broken.) On that premise, screenwriters John Rice and Joe Batteer (Blown Away)created this fictional story in which two Navajos, Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach) and Charles Whitehorse (Roger Willie) are sent off to Saipan. Each is assigned a protector, Joe Enders (Nicholas Cage) and Ox Henderson (Christian Slater). What the Navajos are not told is that it is the code that is being protected–if they get captured, Enders and Henderson have orders to kill them to prevent them from revealing the code.
Woo opens and closes with stunning aerial photography of the Arizona landscape with its mesas and odd shaped rock formations. He establishes the spiritual and community orientation of the Navajos in a sympathetic way, without condescension and avoiding cloying sentimentality. But he quickly segues from a peaceful butterfly and a leaf floating down a river to water churning with blood and floating corpses. It doesn’t take long to get into Woo territory.
The first of the major battle scenes takes place in the Solomon Islands, before the Navajos arrive on the scene. Cage finds himself the ranking NCO of a squad in a fierce battle. His men urge him to retreat, but he insists they defend their position. He ends up being the only survivor, racked with guilt, and in need of redemption. Despite a perforated ear drum, he’s determined to get back into action; he then is assigned to Yahzee and they go into a series of battles in the long and bloody conquest of Saipan.
The script predictably covers bigotry against the Navajos by another Marine, the breaking down of barriers through occasional kindnesses and the forced camaraderie of battle, the universal link of music. None of this is particularly subtle or other than obvious, but in the final analysis, it’s all background fill for Woo’s amazing ability to created spectacular scenes of war–guns, knives, bayonets, hand-to-hand combat, tanks, low-flying planes strafing, explosions, land mines, grenades, fire throwers, trenches, ambushes, burning alive, lost limbs, decapitation, oozing innards, and enough blood to re-float the Lusitania. It’s all photographed and edited brilliantly, Woo’s restless camera and fast cuts sustaining the pace well beyond the intrinsic interest of the material itself. It’s like being hypnotized by a whirling dervish; the dance is less interesting than the hypnotic spell it casts.
There’s a not very well worked out love interest for Cage and the secondary characters are never more than single-dimensional, but Enders, Yahzee, and Whitehorse are etched strongly enough to generate some sympathy and identification. Woo does not put on airs here–he’s out to entertain with action. Whatever else is missing or flawed seems almost beside the point. He delivers what he does best and popular audiences will walk away satisfied. Give the guy a decent script and there’s no telling what wonders might emerge.