A quick word of warning: If you've grown tired of my rants regarding historically dubious war movies (and I'm sure you have), you might want to move on.
After being wounded in the Solomon Islands, Marine Corporal Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) is transported to a military hospital to recuperate. He makes a quick (albeit dubious) recovery and hopes to be sent back to the front, but is instead offered a promotion and a new mission: acting as bodyguard to a Navajo code talker named Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach). Yahzee and his fellow Navajo recruits have been brought in to employ their native language in military transmissions, a move the Marines hope will dumbfound the Japanese, who so far have managed to crack all of the codes used by the United States. Enders balks at playing babysitter, but comes around a bit after being told his new assignment could play a vital role in an Allied victory. He is also informed that his primary mission is to protect the code; should Yahzee be in danger of falling into enemy hands, Enders is to end the Navajo's life.
Say what you will about Mission: Impossible II, Paycheck, or Hard Target, but Windtalkers gets my vote as the worst movie John Woo has directed since he left Hong Kong. Sure, most of Woo's American flicks have been plagued by poor scripts, but this was the only time I felt that the director himself was part of the problem. His flamboyant style and excesses are decidedly out of place in this World War II flick, and they only serve to cause what was already a foundering project to sink like a stone.
The movie, thematically speaking, has no idea what it wants to be. Is it a tribute to the Navajo men who made immeasurable contributions to the Allied efforts in the Pacific? Is it a probing look at the effect war has on the men who wage it? Or is it a gung-ho action flick? It tries being each of these at various moments, and sometimes all three within the same scene, but it ends up failing at all three. It does a disservice to the code talkers by relegating them to supporting roles in their own story. It offers no new insights into the effects of combat on the participants because it undermines every attempt to delve into the psyches of the characters by reverting to the type of B-movie clichés that were stale fifty years ago. And the action sequences, which is staged with far less of an assured hand than we've come to expect from Woo, are also past their expiration date. We get the same heroic charges we've seen a thousand times before, Japanese soldiers who practically line up to be shot or stabbed, grainy stock footage of destroyers firing at mountaintop gun emplacements, and magical American grenades that can kill fifteen of the enemy with one blast. (The movie throws all credibility out the window in the second scene. One of Cage's doomed soldiers chucks a grenade at a nest of Japanese soldiers; the grenade explodes four feet behind them, blasting all of them into the air and killing them instantly. A short time later Cage takes the full brunt of the blast from a Japanese grenade, yet he only suffers a busted eardrum.) If I didn't know better, I'd think someone at MGM discovered this movie's script in the filing cabinet where it had rested for half a century, dusted it off, and passed it on to Woo, who simply ratcheted up the level of violence. Had the role the Navajo code talkers played in the war not been kept classified for two decades after the war's end, this movie would have made excellent propaganda in the '40s. As it stands now, though, it's laughably hackneyed. (For the record, the movie was written by John Rice and Joe Batteer, who wrote two of 1994's most inane movies: Chasers and Blown Away. Enough said.)
Given his approach in the movie's opening scenes, it appears Woo attempted to combine the gut-punch of Saving Private Ryan with the poetry of Terrence Malick's take on The Thin Red Line. The opening of the Solomon Islands sequence features a butterfly flittering over a small creek. Blood suddenly clouds the water, and the body of a fallen soldier floats into view. The carnage then begins. Unfortunately for Woo, he is unable to achieve the impact of either film. When he attempts to be philosophical or emotional, Woo's approach becomes heavy-handed. When he goes for a visceral effect, he, as I mentioned earlier, shoots himself in the foot by engaging in silly excess. For example, one of the soldiers carrying a flamethrower is hit by Japanese fire. His tank explodes, engulfing him in flames. The moment could have worked (as a similar one in Ryan did) had Woo simply played it pragmatically. Thing is, Woo shoots the scene from multiple angles and even throws in a little slow-motion, allowing us to see the flames slowly billowing out and filling the frame. The end result invites derisive laughter, and I can't imagine that's what the director had in mind.
In addition to providing us with enough square-jawed heroics to make even Jock Mahoney blush, the script offers up clichéd, spell-it-all-out dialogue, stock characters, an unnecessary romantic subplot, and story turns you can see coming from a mile away (don't start talking about your wife right before you head into combat!). And instead of providing any real insight into the prejudice the Navajo undoubtedly faced when they found themselves surrounded by white Marines, all we get is yet another depiction of a dumb rube who belittles, bullies and assaults the new recruits, but comes around once his life is saved by one of the very men he's wronged. (Gee, didn't see that coming.) The movie also suffers from another major flaw: the performances by the two leads are simply awful. Cage never finds the right balance between sleepwalking and overacting (dig the scene where he hears the voices of his fallen comrades calling to him in the graveyard), and Beach does little more than grin like an idiot, making me wonder if he thought he was playing the lead in a Tom Cruise biopic. Even had everything else clicked, their performances alone would have killed any chance the movie had.
Just so you'll know, this disc contains the theatrical version of Windtalkers, not the longer (as if this movie needed to be longer), bloodier Director's Cut MGM released in 2003. If you're thinking there's a double-dip somewhere down the road, welcome to the club.
Encoded with MPEG 2 at 18 Mbps, the 2.40:1 transfer looks damn good. I spotted some noise and grain in the background of a shot or two, but that's it as far as flaws go. Colors are rendered perfectly (especially in the lush, vibrant Hawaiian foliage), blacks are solid and deep, and the level of detail is very impressive.
The sound, presented in a lossless DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio, is a knockout. Dialogue is always crystal clear, and James Horner's mawkish, overbearing score is well represented. The battle sequences offer a completely immersive experience, with excellent surround integration and copious low-end activity. Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also included, as are English and Spanish subtitles.
You want extras? Well, you'll have to look elsewhere. There's not a single bonus feature to be found here.
Okay, let's add it up: the movie itself leaves much to be desired, the supplements are nonexistent, and there's a very good chance we'll see a more fully-loaded release in the future. Even if you're a Woo completist (as I myself am), you'll probably want to pass this one by.