directed by John Woo with Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Christian Slater, and Roger Willie opens June 14 at Metro, Pacific Place, Factoria, and others
WHEN TWO MEN stand eye to eye and gun barrel to gun barrel in the midst of sweeping World War II combat, you know it's a John Woo film. The face-off moment of bulging pupils and frozen trigger fingers is familiar from Hard-Boiled or The Killer, only here it's invested with global significance. Gone are the petty gangsters and local hoods who've populated prior Woo efforts. In their place are opposing national armies of grand moral cause.
Coming from a lineage of Hong Kong Chinese who suffered mightily during the Japanese invasion and occupation, Woo's allegiances in Windtalkers are hardly surprising. Unlike Pearl Harbor, where the Japanese are portrayed as reluctant antagonists with wives and families back home, Windtalkers is a throwback to the good old unconflicted WWII battle yarns of yore. The enemy will not be humanized. Forget romance. Forget balance. Forget perspective. As with all Woo efforts (often labeled "operatic"), the tenor of Windtalkers is amplified for the cheapest seat of the last row of the highest balcony in the house.
Yet its martial aria is both atavistic and p.c., melding hoary war-film clich鳠and liberal pieties—so far as our boys are concerned, that is. Thus we have idealistic young Navajo Ben (Smoke Signals' Adam Beach) enlisting in the famous "code talker" unit of the Marines with his reservation buddy Charlie (Roger Willie). Our military has suddenly embraced the language of a people it once sought to exterminate. The reason? Japanese code breakers can't decipher the gutteral Navajo tongue ("It sounds like they're under water!"), making for an invaluable U.S. government secret.
How precious is that secret? Enough so that Ben's guard, Sgt. Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage), has covert orders to kill his charge to prevent enemy capture. Talk about a moral conflict within a moral conflict. Joe's already a shell-shocked combat vet with shattered eardrums and periodic flashbacks to his last, lost platoon. All this vengeful psycho cares about is killing "Japs"—and that's the historical term that's honestly employed here—by the score. Meanwhile, Charlie's Marine guard, Ox (Christian Slater), stands in opposition to Joe's unfriendly hard-assism, reaching out across the ethnic divide with very un-'40s multicultural sensitivity.
ONCE THE BATTLE for the Japanese-held island of Saipan begins, however, all the foxhole conflicts are forgotten to defeat a common foe. Aided by CGI naval ships and fighter planes, Woo achieves impressive scope and scale to the fighting. The action isn't Saving Private Ryan-intense, but the characters are somewhat better drawn than in Pearl Harbor, lending greater weight to their peril.
Perhaps all war movies are love stories, with women conveniently omitted. (Mansfield Park's Frances O'Connor appears only briefly as a kindly nurse, then is heard in voice-over letters to Joe.) Windtalkers is a thoroughgoing guys' film, with male bonding and unit cohesion always at the center of its drama. Mismatched Joe and Ben are supported by a squad full of familiar WWII-flick stereotypes—right down to the redneck who taunts the Indians then undergoes, yes, a change of heart.
This kind of reformation, always so dear to Woo, assumes a spiritual aspect with lapsed Catholic Joe, who bears a G.I.'s dying curse upon him for having sacrificed an entire platoon by obeying orders not to retreat. While Ben laughs at "cowboys watching Indians' backs," Joe feels increasing anguish at the thought of slaying the amiable Navajo. The choice, of course, is one between duty and humanity, meaning that some principle—or somebody—will inevitably be sacrificed for the greater good.
These religious themes hardly make Windtalkers a subtle film (rent The Thin Red Line for the Ph.D. version of similar material), but it's an effective movie in its own corny way. Cathedrals are sketched in the dust; harmonicas and Navajo flutes play in harmony; Woo's signature birds flap through a few frames, signifying transcendence and possible redemption. The picture is none too clear in its depiction of Navajo religion, which it mixes into a pan-spiritual pastiche, but all of Windtalkers bears Woo's same vague, rosy faith in salvation beneath the bloodshed.