- The Washington Times - Friday, June 14, 2002

A beautiful title, "Windtalkers" sounded like the most novel and promising of the World War II movie projects encouraged by the success of Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan."
Unfortunately, it emerges as a worthy sequel to last year's stupefying "Pearl Harbor," suggesting that exploits in the Pacific theater are jinxed at the moment. They certainly have suffered in comparison with those in the European theater, enhanced cinematically by John Irvin's "When Trumpets Fade," Jean-Jacques Annaud's "Enemy at the Gates" and the TV miniseries "Band of Brothers."
Curiously enough, the scene of combat that director John Woo attempts to re-enact in the most expansive and spectacularly violent sequences of "Windtalkers," the battle of Saipan, was overshadowed in contemporary news reports because it began about 10 days after the Normandy landings in June 1944.
There are numerous reasons for finding Saipan compelling. To mention only two: consecutive nights of banzai charges by Japanese troops intent on overrunning Marine Corps positions, and a crucial naval sideshow nicknamed the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot because American carrier pilots devastated Japanese counterparts who steamed toward Saipan in a futile attempt to thwart the invasion. It was the last task force the Imperial Navy could afford to sacrifice.
The failure of "Windtalkers" to pay even cursory attention to these aspects of the battle would be easy to overlook if it proved adequate in other respects. The movie purports to emphasize yet another neglected element: the Marines' Navajo radiomen, the so-called code talkers, recruited to transmit messages at the battalion level. A vocabulary of military terms was rendered in the unwritten Navajo tongue and remained a secure form of communication throughout the war.
The program began with about two dozen Navajo Marines at Guadalcanal and had expanded to upward of 400 men by the time of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
"Windtalkers" isn't daring enough to concentrate on the work demanded of its fictionalized set of code talkers, Adam Beach as Ben Yahzee and Roger Willie as Charlie Whitehorse, or even on the culture shock they might experience when transported from the U.S. Southwest to boot camp and then the South Pacific.
The threadbare central figure is Nicolas Cage as a maimed and near-psycho Marine named Joe Enders, introduced as the sole survivor of a doomed patrol somewhere in the Solomon Islands and then as a hospital patient obviously unfit for further duty because his hearing is nil in one shattered ear. Nevertheless, a fondly sadistic nurse played by Frances O'Connor helps him fake a hearing test, so Joe is back in battle on Saipan, given the special assignment of guarding code talker Ben.
Charlie draws a friendlier guardian: Christian Slater as Ox Henderson. They hit it off so well that they end up dueting on recorder and harmonica, respectively. Sounds pretty good, as a matter of fact.
Joe's brooding hostility stymies Ben's friendly overtures, obviously setting us up for a change of heart somewhere down the line.
The problem is that bringing Joe around obliges us to humor Mr. Cage as a fighting machine so obsessive that he's awarded his very own banzai and turkey-shoot interludes. I don't think any actor in Hollywood history has killed as many make-believe Japanese soldiers at such point-blank range. On one lunatic occasion, it even amuses the filmmakers to have Joe and Ben masquerade as Japanese soldiers, a pretext that would play better as a bloodless escapade with Abbott and Costello.
While the battle scenes run amok in ways calculated to glorify Mr. Cage, an inadvertently funny spectacle when wound up for optimum aggression, the buddy relationships also disintegrate into cliches and howlers.
A bogus suspense element the bodyguards have been instructed to protect "the code" at all costs, implying sacrifice of the code talkers in dire situations never makes a particle of sense. It would more than suffice if the Navajo characters were just keenly aware of the perils that exist on a battlefield.
Noah Emmerich gets stuck with the role of platoon bigot in order to experience his own change of heart. Mr. Woo can't seem to hear how awkward Peter Stormare and Mark Ruffalo sound while simulating Marines of Swedish and Greek origin, respectively. Mr. Stormare is Swedish but still sounds hilarious as a gunnery sergeant outlining the objectives on Saipan.
Pretty much everything that could misfire and accentuate the disillusioning does go kerplop in the course of "Windtalkers."
One character gets to observe, "You're a mess, Joe." It would have been advisable to take this remark seriously before entrusting an entire war epic to the wrong protagonist.


*1/2
TITLE: "Windtalkers"
RATING: R (Frequent graphic violence in a wartime combat setting;
occasional profanity)
CREDITS: Directed by John Woo.
RUNNING TIME: 134 minutes
MAXIMUM CREDIT:4 STARS


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