About the sixth or seventh major war picture to be released in the last twelve months, "Windtalkers" offers very little originality to differentiate it from its previous incarnations. Save for its hook plotline concerning the expert Navajo codetalkers of World War II, the film alternates between sometimes-effective, sometimes-maudlin character moments and ruthlessly graphic battle sequences that admittedly pack quite a punch. In the midst of the carnage is director John Woo (2000's "Mission: Impossible 2
"), whose usually celebrated action setpieces aren't as distinguishable as usual. Woo does, however, do a subtly potent job contrasting the brutality of war with the tranquility of nature.
Focusing on the June 1944 Allied invasion of the Japanese Island of Taipan, dedicated Marine Sergeant Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage), previously wounded in a battle that left his hearing impaired, is partnered with Private Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach). Yahzee is one of several Navajos who have been recruited to learn a special codetalk in their Navajo language to throw off the Japanese. As the battles grow more intense the further they proceed onto the island, Enders begins to confront the psychological scars he has gotten from his actions in war.
Each time "Windtalkers" threatens to grow repetitive with lots of sound, fury, and unremitting gore that signifies little, it bounces back with a nicely written character-defining moment or an unforeseen measure of originality that breaks through the predictability. One such moment occurs early on, as a butterfly peacefully flutters above a river that abruptly turns to blood. A late scene involving a weeping child that a soldier tries to console ends in a shocking payoff that is emotionally jarring and unforgettable.
The subject of racism that runs through the story is less solidly executed by screenwriters John Rice and Joe Batteer. Several of the men, including Corporal Charles 'Chick' Roberts (Noah Emmerich) and Major Mellitz (Jason Isaacs), are instantly at odds with Navajos Yahzee and Private Charles Whitehorse (Roger Willie) until a climactic change of heart that rings with artificiality. James Horner's melodramatic music score does not help matters with its reliance on overly patriotic droning.
The acting, and to a certain extent the characters, cannot be faulted. For all of the film's non-stop action and violence, it comes as a relief that the viewer is given ample chance to sympathize and care about the fates of the characters. For Nicolas Cage (2001's "Captain Corelli's Mandolin
"), as Sergeant Joe Enders, this is one of his most finely tuned performances since his Academy Award win for 1995's "Leaving Las Vegas." Cage lends his complicated character dignity, poignance, and uncertainty, and is up to all of the challenges set forth by this physically and emotionally demanding role.
As Private Ben Yahzee, Adam Beach (2001's "Joe Dirt
") is the movie's most unsuspecting standout. Not only does Beach's role match Cage's in moral complexity, but in a way it is even more tricky. Yahzee is a devote family man on his reservation who realizes too late that he isn't exactly fit for war, and must battle the prejudices of being a minority during a battle for his life. Beach finds the right notes to strike within every scene, and his time on screen is never less than captivating.
Christian Slater (1998's "Very Bad Things
") brings inherent goodness and earnesty to his supporting role as Sergeant Peter 'Ox' Henderson, who is partnered with Whitehorse. Noah Emmerich (1999's "Life
") is appropriately slimy as the racist 'Chick.' Not faring as well are Mark Ruffalo (2001's "The Last Castle
"), as Pappas, and Frances O'Connor (2001's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
"), as Enders' love interest, Rita Swelton. O'Connor's role seems to have especially suffered in the editing process, making her entire appearance within the story feel rather unnecessary.
As far as contemporary war films go, "Windtalkers" places a notch or two below the likes of 1998's "Saving Private Ryan," 1998's "The Thin Red Line
," and 2002's "We Were Soldiers
," all of which were infused with their own voices. "Windtalkers," which only marginally delves into the subject of Navajo codetalking, manages to enrapture the viewer for long stretches of time, but does nothing to stand it out from the overcrowded genre. The star turns by Nicolas Cage and Adam Beach are, ultimately, what is worth seeing.
©2002 by Dustin Putman