Film Reviews: Wednedday, June 13, 2002
Windtalkers\r\nStarring Nicolas Cage and Adam Beach. Directed by John Woo. Written by John Rice and Joe Batteer. Rated R.\r\n
Caged Fury

Nicolas Cage is back — for real this time — in John Woo’s World War II epic.


When Edward Zwick’s Glory was released in 1989, most Americans didn’t know about the involvement of African-American soldiers in the Civil War. The story of the Navajo “code talkers,” which forms the backdrop for Windtalkers, is somewhat better known now, but it’s still worth re-telling. During World War II, Japanese armed forces broke every code used by the U.S. military to transmit information. Finally, the Americans devised a code based on the Navajo language and relied on soldiers and sailors who were native speakers to relay vital information. The messages in the unfamiliar language confused the Japanese, who never deciphered the code that was used successfully until the war’s end.

In the film, Pvt. Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach) is a trained code talker from an Arizona reservation who’s anticipating his first combat action on the Japanese island of Saipan. His squad is commanded by Sgt. Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage), who has seen way too much combat — he got promoted to sergeant by virtue of being the only surviving member of a platoon that got massacred on the Solomon Islands. Since Yahzee is the radio man, Enders is directly responsible for his safety. Yahzee doesn’t know, however, that Enders has orders to protect the code at all costs. This means that, if it reaches that point, Enders must kill Yahzee rather than let him be taken prisoner by the enemy.

The last part of the story must be what attracted director John Woo — male camaraderie complicated by violent undercurrents is a specialty of his. This movie feels more like a Woo film than his last one, M:I-2, but even so, his famous penchant for cinematic violence is curiously muted. Then again, maybe it only seems that way. The bar for violence is set higher in war films than in ordinary action thrillers; the brutality in Woo’s Hong Kong films and Face/Off is made more shocking by their generic context. Also, Spielberg’s depiction of combat violence in Saving Private Ryan was so total and so unflinching that none of the filmmakers who’ve tackled war movies in his wake have been able to match it, not even as large a talent as Woo.

What really separates this from other recent war films is the director’s unabashed emotionalism. Woo’s movies are hot with outbursts of gunfire and human anguish, and this one’s no exception. His tough-guy heroes cry very easily — Adam Beach spends most of the movie being overly pleasant, but he comes through with a great reaction to seeing the dead body of a friend. The movie’s color scheme matches its emotional pitch with lots of deep reds and golds — not for this film the leached-out colors of Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, or We Were Soldiers. The natural beauty of the Pacific island setting contrasts starkly with the battle action, perhaps even more effectively than in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

The big news here is that Cage finally gives an interesting performance, his first one since he last worked with Woo in Face/Off five years ago. Much like Tom Hanks’ character in Private Ryan, Joe Enders is a guy who wears in his eyes every death he’s seen, and who keeps his men at a distance because he could lose them at any time. The difference is that, where Hanks is in danger of falling apart, Cage is in danger of snapping. During the combat sequences, the way Cage’s war hero lights up suggests that part of him likes the killing or at least the adrenaline rush that comes with fighting for his life. This makes him an edgy, discomfiting presence at the movie’s center, particularly after the first action on Saipan, where he can’t take himself out of combat mode even after the enemy soldiers are all dead. His battle against his own demons is more heroic than what he does against the Japanese. Cage’s shredded-nerves performance is a welcome sign that the unpredictable, energetic actor that he used to be hasn’t disappeared.

Cage and Woo do much to obscure weaknesses in the script by John Rice and Joe Batteer (Blown Away). The supporting characters are better drawn than the cardboard ones in We Were Soldiers, but they’re still all-too-recognizable types. Yahzee’s running feud with a racist white U.S. soldier (Noah Emmerich) has two predictable directions in which to go, and it dutifully takes one. The scenes where another Navajo code talker (Roger Willie) bonds with his bodyguard (Christian Slater) over music are hackneyed. The film’s lack of insight into Navajo culture is disappointing, too. James Horner’s pseudo-Aaron Copland music only adds to the hokiness.

Doubtlessly, some people will hail this movie as evidence of Woo’s newfound maturity, but that’s only because this is a war film instead of an action thriller, and the director comes off as slightly more sober than usual. The film isn’t wise enough to rate as a more mature work. Still, Woo’s style is enough to carry the day. With its glowing fireballs, horrific deaths, and Cage’s haunted stare taking it all in, Windtalkers is a convincing vision of hell in the Pacific.

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