Gunplay action is what John Woo is famous for, even though he has done comedies, period dramas and kung fu films. Windtalkers is his latest offering and follows the formula of current war films since Saving Private Ryan, i.e. very violent, masses of extras and action filmed up-close and personal with blood/limbs/corpses being thrown everywhere. Unlike the flag waving so blatantly thrust upon us in Black Hawk Down, Windtalkers spares that and instead has another of John Woo's trademarks: male bonding and dying for your friends.
During World War II, the Japanese managed to break every single code that the US Army used. To counteract these breaches, the US Army invented a new code based on the Navajos language and used native Navajos Indians as code talkers, relaying communications from the front lines which in turn was sent to Naval vessels to enable long range bombing to be carried out.
Nicholas Cage is Sergeant Joe Enders, a man haunted by guilt for allowing his platoon to be killed during heavy fighting with the Japanese. His body and mind are damaged but manages, with the help of a nurse (Frances O'Connor) fake his way back into the war.
He is selected to be a bodyguard to one of the Navajo code talkers, Private Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach). What Yahzee doesn't know is that Enders orders are to protect the code at all costs. If at any point it, any code talker is compromised (i.e. about to be captured) the bodyguard has to kill his assigned Navajo. There are two code talkers assigned to the front-line troops, the other being Private Charles Whitehorse (Roger Willie) who in turn has Sergeant Peter 'Ox' Henderson (Christian Slater) as his 'guardian angel'.
At first the two code talkers are shunned away by their fellow comrades due to preconceptions and racism. However, during vicious fighting between the US Army and Japanese troops, the men witness how the code (and more importantly the code talkers) saved lives. One the troops accept the two Navajos they also begin to appreciate their patriotism, honour and loyalties. Henderson, unfortunately, is beginning to become friends with his charge Whitehorse, while Enders initially keeps his distance from Yahzee, but slowly begins to befriend him too.
Problems arise when Enders psychological state makes him turn 'medieval on everyone's ass' during battle and he charges ahead with a death wish dragging Yahzee in tow. As the troops are shipped over to take a key point in the jungles of Saipan; heavily defended by dug-in enemy troops, the question arises; will Enders continue his death wish or will he do his job and protect the inexperienced Navajo?
The real question, however, is will the two 'bodyguards' be able to kill their friends to protect the code? And what would happen if the code talkers discovered the real reason they have the protection of these angels?
Windtalkers is more in the vein of some of John Woo's earlier Hong Kong films (Bullet In The Head, Heroes Shed No Tears) as it deals with extreme camaraderie between men during war and the bonds that are formed and tested as a result. It's more of a 'guys' film (My wife was often bored throughout yet she enjoyed the similarly violent We Were Soldiers - go figure!) with explosions, male bonding and some of the most intense fighting scenes since the last major war film! It's a long film at almost 2 ½ hours with so many people killed, that it becomes almost indifferent to watch.
The key difference between We Were Soldiers and Windtalkers is that the latter portrays the enemy as pop-up characters, just there to be shot. We Were Soldiers showed the enemy troops in a much more human light and that they were soldiers fighting for their cause too. Having said that, with the amount of people killed in the average John Woo film there's probably not enough time to do a great deal of enemy characterisation!
Performances are good with Nicholas Cage standing out as the flawed Enders. Mind you only his character is explored to any real depth, as the remaining characters are fairly one-dimensional. Adam Beach is good as Yahzee, the naïve outsider who becomes a toughen war hero, yet he never loses sight of his family , honour or tribal traditions.
There are the usual cliché's such as a racist soldier is saved by the man who he tormented earlier; two non-leading buddy characters (one's going to die horribly in front of his mate) and crossing cultures through a shared moment (in this case a Navajo plays an Indian flute with another solder on a harmonica) and so on.
However, for all its flaws, Windtalkers is still an action packed adventure with John Woo excelling himself during the battle scenes. Its violent and hectic with limbs, blood and bodies being sprayed all over the place, but the film never loses it heart at which the message of honour and camaraderie is instilled in.
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