M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

After his first three American-made films -- Hard Target (1993), Broken Arrow (1996), and Face/Off (1997) -- fans of director John Woo were largely disappointed. Face/Off had its supporters, but in general, nothing on Woo's American resume came anywhere close to his best work in Hong Kong, such as The Killer (1989) and Hard-Boiled (1992). But then came Mission: Impossible 2 (2000), a stunning action vehicle of near operatic intensity. At last, Woo had rediscovered his niche. Whereas Hard Target burdened Woo with the light acting talents of Jan-Claude Van Damme and Broken Arrow pulled Woo away from his most comfortable milieu -- of gangsters, narrow alleys, and gun-filled warehouses -- and placed him in the American Southwest, Mission: Impossible 2 plumbed his greatest strengths as a director -- his amazing skill at choreographing action sequences and his eye for producing stunning images.

In part, Woo's newest film, Windtalkers, is a return to the American Southwest (where the movie's opening and closing scenes take place), a milieu that Woo exhibits little feel for. During the opening credits his camera soars over and around the majestic bluffs and buttes of Monument Valley (which director John Ford made famous many years ago). In this sequence, Woo plays the tourist, disconnected from the land he's observing, soaring like a wealthy adventurer who would prefer to hover god-like above the land rather than actively investigate the environment and its inhabitants on a human level. While it's easy to forgive the lack of humanity in this opening sequence, it unfortunately becomes symbolic of the movie that follows.

The movie lacks the details that would make the characters come to life. In place of convincing character traits and a well-considered sense of place, we get an embarrassing profusion of roiling orange explosions, severed limbs, and sprays of dirt and shrapnel. Woo loves explosions and he fills this movie with them. As usual for a Woo movie, his emphasis is upon action -- bodies flying through the air, rifles and cannons ejecting spent casings, and bullets ripping out chunks of human viscera. Woo loves the ingredients of the action sequence, and maybe no one in the history of cinema has shown such skill and grace while directing action movies. But when divorced of the gangster/crime milieu, Woo's filmmaking technique can quickly become strident and bombastic.

In Windtalkers, Woo takes one of the great stories of WWII -- the participation of Navajo Indians to send and decode messages using the Navajo language. The Japanese never broke this code. However, the code was so important -- many lives depended upon it remaining secret -- that the code preceded the lives of the Navajo men brought in to use it. Rather than risk allowing a Navajo soldier to be captured, each Navajo soldier was given a chaperone whose job it was to make sure the code did not fall into enemy hands -- using whatever means necessary.

There is the potential here for a great story, but Windtalkers isn't it. Windtalkers is an anachronism -- a 1940s style war opus that defines heroism in terms of a high enemy body count and thunderous displays of pyrotechnics. But from a 21st Century perspective, the goings-on in Windtalkers ring hollow and false. Windtalkers takes place in a time warp, as if Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, and HBO's Band of Brothers never happened. These movies made us appreciate the sacrifices made by soldiers through their close attention to the details of soldier life. We learned about the horror and the chaos that goes with being pinned own on a beach invasion. We learned about the unrelenting drudgery, the filthy living conditions, the unforgiving commanders who constantly pushed for more even when soldiers had already given everything they had to give. In contrast, Windtalkers forsakes the minutia of military life for blockbuster-style spectacle, while characters are reduced to clichés (the white bigot who torments a fellow soldier, the homesick soldier who fears what his wife might be doing back at home, etc.). The screenplay paints these characters in only the broadest terms, latching onto a single characteristic and then tenaciously returning to it ad infinitum.

Sergeant Enders (Nicolas Cage) is probably the most disappointing member of this lot. Cage is certainly one of our best actors, but he is also capable of delivering horrid performances. In Windtalkers, Cage is mostly in the latter mode. Burdened with a simplistic character -- a battle-scarred, guilt-ridden sergeant who doubts his own abilities -- Cage responds with a stock set of expressions, acting mostly with his teeth (which he gnashes and clenches) and his eyes (which he opens wide in horror and then lazily lets drift into indifference). Cage never figures out how to bring this melodramatically conceived character to life.

Adam Beach fares somewhat better as the Navajo soldier entrusted to Enders' care. At least he doesn't overplay his hand (well, not until the screenplay forces him to turn into an action movie hero, that is). Until then Ben Yahzee (Beach) and his Navajo buddy, Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie), provide a calming sense of normalcy contrasted with the overriding despair and self-hatred of Enders. (Further contrasted with Enders is a relatively well-mannered sergeant played by Christian Slater, who is entrusted with protecting Whitehorse.)

In one of the movie's best scenes (which is so good it gets repeated until it eventually loses all effect whatsoever), a platoon of soldiers is pinned down by enemy fire until the Navajo soldiers radio the coordinates of the Japanese regiment to a U.S. battleship, with a resulting volley of cannon fire that obliterates the enemy. However, like much of the rest of the movie, director Woo doesn't know how to resolve scenes without resorting to a profusion of explosions. He only seems at ease when dirt is flying and orange billows roll toward the sky. Without confidence in his Navajo central character, Woo allows his predilection for operatic intensity to undermine his faith in his characters. Like the Japanese soldiers who were obliterated by the battleship guns, the movie's characters get obliterated and rendered irrelevant by the cinematic onslaught.

This movie lays open Woo's weakness as a filmmaker, mainly his tendency toward extreme melodrama, worthy of Samuel Fuller or Nicholas Ray. But while Fuller and Ray plied this territory by resolutely keeping the focus on the characters, Woo's attention span is much too short. He's all-too-willing to abandon his characters in favor of shafts of light, thick banks of smoke, and the ever present, ever reliable explosion. Given the right material, Woo's methods can be stunning. But given the wrong material -- as in Windtalkers -- Woo's methods can be, at best, absurd and, at worst, horribly insensitive. Instead of providing insight into the WWII contributions of the Navajo, Woo opts for sensationalism and this approach cheapens the sacrifices that real soldiers made.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: M-G-M
Movie Web site: Windtalkers



Photo credits: © 2002 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Inc. All rights reserved.