John Woo won a loyal following of action fans when he made movies in Hong Kong. He came to America and began to make movies with bigger budgets, but they had lost some of the edge that had made Woo synonymous with nonstop Hong Kong action.
Windtalkers shows an even more refined, even less edgy John Woo than perhaps we’ve ever seen before.
Right Premise, Wrong Genre
R for war violence, language
The premise of Windtalkers makes for a great historical thriller. During World War II, the American Pacific forces developed a code based on the Navajo language. The Japanese were completely stymied by the code. In fact, it was never broken.
Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach) is a young Navajo who joins the marines as a codetalker. Ben is put under the care of Sergeant Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage). Unbeknownst to Ben, Joe’s actual assignment is to protect the code — not the man. Should Ben fall into enemy hands, Joe must do whatever is necessary to make sure Ben can’t talk.
A good premise for a thriller, as I said. The trouble is that Windtalkers is not a historical thriller. It’s an action movie, and therein lies the problem.
For Woo, WWII is an excuse for bullets and blasts. After the honest brutality of Saving Private Ryan, it almost seems irreverent to make a war movie into mere entertainment. War is deadly serious and at some point, “fun” war movies just don’t make any sense. Paul Verhoeven understands this — his painfully ironic Starship Troopers is closer to Windtalkers than Spielberg’s level Saving Private Ryan. But Woo doesn’t strive for irony, he strives for action. Even his inside angle — the codetalker premise — is tangential to his main focus, which is to give audiences a visceral action thrill.
The Navajo characters talk in code only about three times (except for some lighthearted transition scenes). The movie is not really about them. If anything, this film is about the invasion of Saipan. Come to think of it, if the title were “The Taking of Saipan,” the codetalkers would have made a great subplot. But putting them in the title is just dishonest. It sets up false expectations, which is bad for both audiences and filmmakers alike.
Granted, the themes of friendship, loyalty, and the greater good give a little extra depth to the film, just as the question of identity did in Woo’s Face/Off. But these themes in Woo’s movies are so subtle, especially amidst such explosive action, as to seem almost accidental.
As another example, if you watch Ben’s character carefully you’ll see that he becomes hardened to the brutality of war. He starts the movie as a timid rabbit and ends it as an unleashed pit bull. The trouble is that this great performance by Beach (and surprisingly good bit of direction) is hidden behind so much shrapnel and smoke that most people won’t notice it. At least these minor details are there. Without them, Woo’s films might really be bad.
Windtalkers is disappointing, though not bad. Woo’s action scenes are actually quite effective. They bypass your brain and hit you in the gut. But if that’s the only reason to see Windtalkers, then a lot of talent and one great premise have been wasted.