Review: 'Windtalkers' flat, by-the-book war movie
Woo's, Cage's pyrotechnics overwhelm film
(CNN) -- Now that a new age of warfare is upon us, so is a new age of war movies. Hollywood has yet to release any battle films that were made after the sad awakening of September 11, but the pictures that were kicked into development by "Saving Private Ryan's" success are establishing new boundaries for onscreen violence.
"Windtalkers" is a textbook World War II melodrama with enough carnage to convince the "Black Hawk Down" crowd that it's an unflinching depiction of real combat. Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn't. But no amount of burning, blasting, stabbing, and shooting can hide a weak script.
This is supposed to be the story of Pvt. Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), one of the many Navajo radio operators who relayed combat instructions during World War II, via a code that was based on their native language. The enemy never managed to break the code -- Japan and Germany had no Navajos -- but that didn't stop them from torturing any apparent American Indians they captured to see if they'd spit out the answers.
So Yahzee is teamed up with Sgt. Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage), a physically and spiritually wounded combat veteran whose mission is to protect Yahzee ... or to kill him, if it looks like he's about to fall into enemy hands.
Missing the point
That could have been a pretty good movie, but the screenplay, by John Rice and Joe Batteer, is quickly victimized by a common Hollywood back-pedal: It mostly ignores the minority figure in favor of focusing on a white guy.
This pivotal misstep can also be traced to the fact that Cage, for whatever reason, is a big movie star, while Beach is a relative newcomer. And you don't gamble with such an expensive picture.
The result is a wishy-washy storyline that feints toward importance while settling for blood-and-guts and a string of "war is hell" clichés. Some of these scenes would make John Wayne blush. Woo breaks out the been-there-done-that early on, when we see Enders receiving the head wound that will torture him throughout the picture. When one of his men dies in his arms, Cage plaintively screams "Noooooooo!" before he, too, is taken out by a grenade. It's hard to be moved when you're so busy giggling.
That's just the beginning, though. Yahzee is written as a near-saint who, until cornered, gently sidesteps the racism provided by the vicious hick in the platoon. His quiet Navajo buddy, Pvt. Whitehorse (Roger Willie), on the other hand, occupies his time by playing tunes on his flute, which enables him to forge a Special Interracial Bond with harmonica-playing Sgt. Henderson (Christian Slater, but it could have been anybody for all he's asked to do).
There's also the usual scene where the guys talk about their unique plans for making a fortune when they "get outta here." This leads to Slater's character ruminating for an entire sentence over how he's hoping to sell a newfangled product called "yogurt" once he gets home. Don't ask me.
Other characters include a gruff, by-the-books officer (Peter Stormare) and a pretty young nurse (Frances O'Connor) who falls for Enders when he's in the hospital. It should come as no surprise that they warm to each other the night before Enders is shipped off to hell in the South Pacific, or that he's haunted by horrifying flashbacks at every turn.
And then there's Cage's by-now requisite histrionic performance. Though Enders is supposed to be haunted by the men he lost in that early battle, his bulging eyes and toothy snarl look exactly like Nic Cage trying desperately to convince us that he's a killing machine.
It's no secret by now that Woo can orchestrate a complex action scene like nobody's business. But you don't really sense any fear or anguish in these men because everything about the movie, aside from the flying body parts, is cartoonish.
A master of pulp -- and Woo made some terrifically compelling action pictures when he was still in Hong Kong -- should stick with what he knows best. If there's too much weight to the subject matter, the whole thing sinks in the blood.
"Windtalkers" contains bad language and as broad an assortment of violence as you can imagine. It isn't lingered over, but you have to leave the theater to avoid it. This one is a missed opportunity, which places it a step above most pictures nowadays, where there's basically no opportunity at all.
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