During its production and expected release about one year ago, "Windtalkers" (IMDb listing) was unsullied and fresh. A hugely-budgeted, star-driven World War II epic that marked a reunion for director John Woo and actor Nicolas Cage, collaborators on one of the best films of the 1990s, "Face/Off." Yet, for whatever gossipy reason, "Windtalkers" was held in the vaults for a year, and in its absence came HBO's "Band Of Brothers," "Dark Blue World," "Enigma," "Hart's War," and the Vietnam picture "We Were Soldiers." Nevertheless, this dusty feel to "Windtalkers" might work in the film's favor, as the picture is as good or even better than the recent surge of contemporaries.
Set in 1943 during the battle of Saipan, "Windtalkers" is about two sergeants, Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) and Peter "Ox" Henderson (Christian Slater), who are assigned to watch over two newly-minted Navajo code talkers, Charles Whitehorse (Roger Willie) and Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), as they make their way up the Japanese infested island. As ferocious battles wage all around them, the men form a bond that soon evolves into full out friendship. These friendships mean trouble for Enders and Henderson, as they have also been assigned to kill the two Navajo if there is even the slightest hint that they might fall into enemy hands, due to the precious nature of their native language-based code.
Cynics will have a hard time with "Windtalkers," as they always do with John Woo films. Woo is an artist who frequently wears his heart on his sleeve. Sure, the man is responsible for some of the more violent films of the last twenty years ("Hard Target," "The Killer," "Hard-Boiled"), but Woo has a knack for turning fatality into a disturbingly profound beauty. After taking his splendid 2000 "Mission: Impossible" sequel to almost operatic heights, Woo returns to familiar ground with "Windtalkers," a film that brings the director back into the same vein as his 1990 Vietnam epic, "Bullet In The Head."
Unlike some of its aforementioned contemporaries, "Windtalkers" doesn't celebrate heroism, but showcases it more as an unfortunate byproduct of war. Woo suggests that to be a hero, you must survive catastrophe. And "Windtalkers" is full of catastrophe. A violent, gritty film that might not take the viewer into the heart of battle, but at least does a masterful job imagining the chaos of it, "Windtalkers" falls somewhere in between the alluring sanctimony and realism of "Saving Private Ryan," and the utter cartoon that was Michael Bay's "Pearl Harbor" (Woo does get a little carried away with the explosions). It's theatrical enough, as is any Woo picture, to raise the ire of those less willing to allow some improbable moments, but the destruction/action comes in large quantities, and you feel the heat of battle as if you were really there.
Yet, outside of the pandemonium, there are scenes in "Windtalkers" that will take a truly patient viewer to appreciate. A case in point are a select few moments that Whitehorse and Henderson share where they have an impromptu jam on a traditional Navajo flute and hand-me-down harmonica. These are delicate, humane character moments in between the mayhem, and will be unexpected (and snickered at) by those conditioned to reject sentimentality at all costs, especially in war films. In fact, "Windtalkers" is steeped in scenes like this, taking the Navajo spirituality very seriously in a film literally caked with bloodshed. Having enjoyed Woo's previous films with a ferocity, I welcomed his deft control in balancing the two sides of the warfare coin. Most directors couldn't get away with such flights of fancy, but Woo is too passionate a filmmaker, too undeterred in his convictions to let cynicism get in his way.
I shouldn't let talk of the spiritual or male bonding get in the way, as "Windtalkers" is most certainly a war film. Battle scenes are Woo's specialty, and this film features some wildly expressive set pieces of war. Forgoing the usual tightly choreographed combat run-throughs of "Saving Private Ryan," "Windtalkers" has a more wild-eyed "They're coming at us from all sides!" type of fighting. It's exhausting to watch, but it does a competent job getting into the minds of the characters, who deal with bombs at every three feet and Japanese soldiers behind every bush. Woo's blitzkrieg attack on the senses is both horrifying and cinematically delectable.
Not that Woo gets everything exactly right. Character actor Noah Emmerich plays the token racist soldier of the platoon, and he plays him poorly. I think the actor took the part much too seriously, choosing to come off as an oafish boob instead of a real man with strong racial opinions. I partially blame Woo and the screenwriters for such an unnecessary inclusion, as the film is more respectful than this tired cliché suggests. But Emmerich is clueless about what to do, and his scenes are the film's lowest points. Curious too is the use of battleship stock footage during one of the larger-scale war sequences. It sticks out like a sore thumb, as the film has been crafted using modern technology, then out of nowhere comes this footage from the 1940s, along with the expected grain and stock abuse. This must be a first for a $100 million film. They couldn't even afford to make a battleship model? Sadly, these two elements in the mixture go a long way to diffusing the overall product. But, in what should be the beginning of the end regarding the resurgence of WWII pictures, this is a terrific way to end the genre's run.
Filmfodder Grade: B+