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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Windtalkers

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach
Director: John Woo
Rated: R
RunTime: 133 Minutes
Release Date: June 2002
Genres: Action, Drama, War

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Is a movie that takes over two hours to tell its story every justified? Absolutely. Take "Lagaan," for example, the 3 hours thirty-five minutes' epic that was Oscar-nominated for best foreign film of 2001. "Lagaan" was not only about something, an eipc story of a conflict between India's colonial masters and the native population which challenged the British to a round of cricket, but it featured a panoply of scenes of dance, superb music, believable action, and a story with razor-sharp wit and intelligence. By contrast, John Woo's "Windtalkers" would have been fine at 95 minutes but at 133 (that's two hours, thirteen minutes) Mr. Woo seems almost to have contempt for John Rice and Joe Batteer's script (can't blame him for that: the writing is as pedestrian as the agitprop sort I grew up on during World War II) in favor of Woo's signature as martial arts specialist. While there is no kung fu, the battles look as though they were designed by the choreographers at the Joyce Theater in New York which specializes in flamboyant modern dance. But there is little variation. When the Japanese are shot, they fly through the air and are dead before they hit the ground. When the Americans are done in, they take their time in expiring, in some cases showing up in the audience their wounds to the chest, demonstrate the difficult breathing with a bullet in the lung, and in one case display the results of a leg shot off below the knee. Each Japanese soldier moreover dies with a single shot or a quick thrust of the bayonet. Americans can trot back to the trenches while carrying their wounded comrades, while bullets fly everywhere but into their bodies.

The big virtue of the story line is that we learn about the contributions of the Navajo Indians, mostly from Arizona, to the war effort. While the Japanese succeeded in breaking almost every code the U.S. forces used to inform headquarters of potential targets for the aircraft, the Navajo Indians used their own language to stand in for important concepts. For example, to represent a patrol plane, the Navajos would use their word for crow and for hand grenades, the term for potatoes. The Japanese could not figure out what was what but for some reason known only to scripters John Rice and Joe Batteer, the enemy knew that if they caught anyone who looked different from the mostly white forces on their land, they should take him back alive for "interrogation."

At the heart of the story are the orders given to Sergeant Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) to babysit for Pvt. Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach) to make sure that Yahzee would not get taken by the enemy. If Yahzee were on the brink of capture, Enders had to shoot him. (This is fictional: no such order was ever given to a marine during World War II or any other time.) This meant that Enders would avoid becoming too chummy with his windtalker (i.e. code communicator) lest he be reluctant to do the dirty deed.

You know the rest. Would it spoil the movie to know that Yahzee really had to exercise his discretion in carrying out the order? That that Yahzee would face a yahoo marine would would bait him now and then ostensibly because the white marine remembers the fate of General Custer? Or that Enders would have a gal (Frances O'Connor), a hospital worker who helps him to cheat on a hearing test after his eardrum got perforated so that the gung-ho sarge could get back into the action?

And oh, yes, another good thing about "Windtalkers" is that an art house filmmaker is bound to take up the little-known story of Navajo help to make a sincere, character-driven movie on a human level that might interest even those movie fans who may realize that there's more to the screen than explosions, chases, and cliches.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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