During World War II, the Japanese proved so adept at deciphering codes
that the United States turned to Navajo citizens, whose language relies
on complex, subtle nuances of pronunciation. Those American Indians were
able to devise a method of communicating secrets that the enemy could
not crack. Beginning in 1942, roughly 400 Navajo men served as code
talkers and became vital parts of the war effort.
"Windtalkers" takes this fascinating historical fact and builds a bad
movie around it. Director John Woo ("Mission: Impossible II,"
"Face/Off," "Broken Arrow," "Hard Boiled," "The Killers") takes a
screenplay packed with war movie and American Indian clichés and
slathers his legendary operatic violence over everything. The result is
a visually interesting, emotionally hollow cavalcade of hooey.
The film opens by alternating between visions of war and peace. In the
Solomon Islands, Marine Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) follows orders and
continues to push his soldiers forward in battle despite the fact that
they are terribly outnumbered. His efforts result in serious injury to
him and death to all of his men. Cut to a serene desert of the American
southwest, where Navajo friends Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach) and Charlie
Whitehorse (Roger Willie) are recruited into the military. An impressive
blood-in-river-water segue carries us from the desert to the
Yahzee and Whitehorse are assigned to a Marine reconnaissance unit as
code talkers. The deadly grim Enders and his perky buddy Ox Henderson
(Christian Slater) are assigned to watch over the men, but what the
newbies don't know is that their protectors have been told that, above
all else, "the code must be protected." In the event of imminent enemy
capture, they are to kill the two Navajos.
Those orders, it is important to note, were invented for the movie.
And so the dance begins. Since he may have to snuff him, Enders is
determined not to get close to Yahzee, but the easy-going Henderson
quickly buddies up with Whitehorse, with their mutual love of music (dig
those harmonica and Indian flute duets) serving as a stepping stone to
John Woo spends the bulk of the film hopping between hyped-up battle
scenes and trite personal moments with the men. We meet the other guys
in the squad, but actors Mark Ruffalo, Brian Van Holt, Martin Henderson,
Peter Stormare and Jason Isaacs are given virtually nothing to do, while
Noah Emmerich gets considerable screen time as the designated bigot,
strutting about making "Injun" wisecracks. Yahzee and Whitehorse are
permitted to voice their shared wish to be treated just as simple
soldiers, but the film reinforces the stereotype that all Indians are
exceptionally spiritual beings with a quasi-mystical connection to
Will the bigot learn the error of his ways? What will be the fate of
Henderson and Whitehorse? Will Enders lower his guard and become pals
with Yahzee? And what of those crucial orders - will they be put to the
Oooh, what tension.
For the battle scenes, Woo digs into his standard bag of tricks,
employing slo-mo shots of birds in flight, a sweeping over-dramatic
score by James Horner, gunfire and gore galore, and a phenomenal number
of explosions. The choreography of the fighting is painfully obvious; it
is immediately obvious in each shot which stunt man is supposed to
dazzle viewers with well-rehearsed moves - a mid-air barrel roll here, a
freaky head snap there. It's all very stylish and visually engaging and
annoying. I am so sick of watching filmmakers "honor" soldiers by
blowing them up creatively.
As for the characters, this is strictly the stuff of old school war
movie soap operas, with the key male soldiers showing far more passion
towards each other than lovers do in romance films. In this instance,
Enders refuses to answer letters from the charming nurse (Frances
O'Connor) who treated him after the opening battlefield debacle, but
look at the passion as he stares deeply into the eyes of fellow soldiers
during the dying-in-the-arms-of-his-buddy scenes.
Mind you, I am not belittling the emotional reactions. I simply find it
curious that predominately heterosexual male audiences eat up this stuff
in war movies while sneering at similar behavior in romance films.
But then again, maybe I just don't understand the genre. I truly
believed that "Saving Private Ryan," with its ultra-realistic portrait
of the battlefield, would prove an end to cheesy war-as-spectacle
movies. But while honest efforts like "We Were Soldiers" pop up
occasionally, lurid, melodramatic comic book war continues to thrive in
films like "Windtalkers." Go figure.
Copyright © 2002 Edward Johnson-Ott