Thursday, July 15, 2010


Loud explosions, pyrotechnics, and bodies flying through the air come naturally to the modern war movie, even to the point that sheer devastation is no longer an effective selling point.  These movies need their own angle in order to avoid being seen as lame Saving Private Ryan copycats.  The hook for Windtalkers is the relatively unknown tale of the Navajo tribesmen that joined the army to act as code talkers in the Pacific side of World War II.  That actually sounds like an interesting premise; so many war movies go boom, while very few spend the time to think.  Sending and breaking codes sounds fairly cerebral, right?

Ooh...but John Woo directed this movie.  And he teamed up with Nicolas Cage as the lead actor and Christian Slater as an important supporting character.  So...the main character isn't Navajo, despite the hook for this movie being about the Navajo code talkers.  Great.  I will give credit where it's due; at least they didn't pull a Touch of Evil and give the lead actor an unconvincing ethnic makeover.  Well, if the story is not centering on a Navajo character, what is the story?

Joe Enders (Cage) begins the movie by holding his platoon's position on Guadalcanal at all costs, which means everyone died except him; he was injured, losing hearing in one ear, which also occasionally hurts his balance.  He recovers in a hospital, thanks in part to a nurse (Frances O'Connor) that is clearly attracted to him, despite the fact that he is played by Nic Cage in his "brooding" mode.  Enders gets a promotion and a new assignment as soon as he is well; his new assignment is to protect Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), one of the new Navajo code talkers.  Ox Anderson (Slater) receives a similar assignment, protecting Charlie Whitehorse.  The Navajo language is an unwritten one and is almost incomprehensible, even within its own language family, which makes it especially hard for enemies to translate; these code talkers were bilingual Navajo that transmitted important messages without the risk of being understood by the enemy.  If the Japanese managed to ever understand the Navajo language, though, the American forces would be in trouble.  Therefore, both Enders and Anderson are told that they must protect the code at all costs; their code talkers must die before being taken captive by the enemy.

That's pretty much the story basics, but there's plenty of stock subplots.  You've got the predictable awkward assimilation into the unit by the Navajo.  They are seen as savages at first, but their impossibly calm demeanor and passivity earn the respect of their squadmates and their practices become more acceptable over time.  Of course, there's one guy (Noah Emmerich) in the squad that is racist; of course, his life is eventually saved by a Navajo.  There's the nervous soldier (Mark Ruffalo) and the guy with the cool weapon (Brian Van Holt).  There's the commanding officer (Peter Stormare) that needs things done, no matter the cost.  There's the inevitable split between the two parallel plot lines; you know either Anderson or Enders will eventually have to kill a Navajo to protect the code.  Who will it be, the nice Anderson, or the bad-ass Enders?

This movie should have been so much better.  Obviously, the big problem is the story.  Why make a movie about the Navajo code talkers, if they are not the main characters?  I'm not crazy about Adam Beach as an actor, but using him as the POV character would have been much better.  Instead, we have a tortured white soldier to identify with.  Even better, it's Nicolas Cage in full-on inappropriate overacting mode.  Ignoring the poor choice of main character, this movie still has major problems.  Are you telling me that the Marines put two extremely valuable code talkers in the same squad, facing immediate danger?  There were only about two hundred of these guys in the war.  I'm pretty sure they would have been better suited for sending messages from wherever the local base was.  This movie barely even uses them for sending or receiving codes; they spend most of their time giving uncoded coordinates for air support.  That's really stupid.  What, are the Japanese (who are shown listening to the radio transmissions) going to hear their own coordinates and assume that whatever is coming their way is good?  Maybe the Americans are bringing them ice cream!  Stupid.  And how many Japanese die in this movie?  This is the Pacific war, where they were dug in and well-protected.  The Americans just run up the side of mountains, and yet I'd estimate that the dead Japanese outnumbered the dead American soldiers by a 4:1 ratio.  That is so far beyond stupid, it's insulting to stupid.

The acting is what you would expect from a John Woo movie.  It's barely there.  Nicolas Cage gets to make funny faces when he's in battle and sulk when he's not.  I'm sorry to say that he actually showed the most range in this movie.  Christian Slater, Peter Stormare, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian Van Holt were all one-dimensional caricatures of 1940s soldiers.  Noah Emmerich got to be the racist jerk that sees the error in his ways (well, he learns to accept one Navajo, anyway), but the character is so boring and predictable that you still don't care.  Adam Beach was a little better, but his character had no emotional arc, so there was nothing for him to do in this role.  Whose fault is all this?  Well, you can blame the writers, John Rice and Joe Batteer, because this story sucks, but I'm going to blame John Woo.  As the director and a producer on the film, he had ample opportunity to realize how crappy this script was and have it fixed.  He didn't, so the responsibility for this wreck belongs to him.

This movie doesn't even have the normal perks of a John Woo movie.  The action isn't good.  Woo is best known for his slow-motion, stylized action sequences, where impossible things happen and then explode.  Here, he tries to channel the destructive spirit of the Pacific war and fails.  The big battle scenes try to have a documentary feel to them (a la Saving Private Ryan), but the special effects in these scenes are far worse than any war movie released in 2002 should be.  Some of the smaller-scale battle sequences are fine, but it's not enough to make this movie watchable.

Let's see...bad story, bad acting, and bad action.  Yep.  This is a bad movie.

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