It’s the Second World War. Nicolas Cage (The Trust) is Corporal Joe Enders. Fighting in some God forsaken jungle against hordes of Japanese killers, he’s tasked with holding some worthless piece of shit swamp no matter the cost. Degrading quicker than a Lars Von Trier movie, each of his beloved squad bite the dust one-by-one. “Lets bug out!” one marine suggests, nay begs. But Enders has his orders. It’s only when everyone around him are bleeding their guts out and dead in the dirt that he realizes that he should of sounded the order to retreat. Too late for that now, Joe, and a last moment kill crazy rampage (complete with manic Cage face) isn’t going to impress anyone. It’s only cut short by a lucky grenade that blows half his ear off.
Recouping after the failed op he’s promoted to Sargent much to his surprise. See the brass happen to think highly of a man who’ll condemn his brother marines to death in the name of orders. And they have a very special mission just because of it…
Back home in the good old US of A Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach – Hostiles) is kissing his wife and baby goodbye before heading off to war. As a Navajo, he and a bunch of other willing native folk are signing up to become special “code talkers” who’d use their obscure language as an unbreakable code to coordinate tactical strikes against the Axis bastards.
The first time I’d heard of this sort of thing was an episode of the X-Files. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna claim that Windtalkers writers Joe Batteer or John Rice (who also wrote Blown Away) ripped off the idea, as weird languages were actually used in the war. Hell even Welsh was planned to be used (likely shelved due to the fact that no Welshman wielded the intellect to either read or write in that era). But I’m gonna say that the idea was out there. It didn’t blow our socks off like it should have. We’d seen Mulder and Scully deciphering alien shit seven years earlier in ’95.
Any way, along for the ride is Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie – also the dialect coach for the movie), an older and more badass buddy of Ben’s. He brings with him a thick hunting knife and an old woodwind pipe which he uses to play melancholic Native American tunes during opportune and significant moments. It’s his 40’s equivalent of tweeting. Later he’ll duet with Christian Slater on the harmonica, I shit you not.
Together Ben and Charlie excel in class though Whitehorse is a little smarter. But Ben has the edge in age and raw ability. Once they pass their basic training they’re shipped off to Saipan to begin the American assault which will eventually lead to the end of the war. Naturally, being different, they’re not readily accepted by their comrades. Specifically Private “Chick” Clusters (Noah Emmerich – Last Action Hero) takes deep umbrage with the fact that his grandaddy used to talk about shooting “injuns” when he was a boy. The cowboys now having to protect the Indians just doesn’t sit well with him.
Even Joe and new to the unit “Ox” Henderson (Christian Slater – Broken Arrow) are less than impressed with the idea of baby sitting two Navajo noobs out on the front. Their mission is to protect these enigmatic “Windtalkers” with super secret orders to put a cap in their asses if they look like they’re gonna be captured.
Joe is in the midst of a crisis of faith, continually reliving his mistake at the beginning of the movie. He’s suffering flashbacks and staring dead eyed into the middle distance. All that PTSD crappiness. He’s also pretty much deaf, only passing the army medical with the help of comely nurse Rita (Frances O’Connor – The Hunter). So he’s either whacked out on pain meds or getting pissed off with Ben Yahzee’s lack of battlefield knowledge to really give a shit about the man. His expression shifts between vacant, pained and annoyed. He’s even too mean to reply to any of Rita’s letters. The dick. We readily think he’s cool with nuking Ben should it come down to it.
On the other hand Ox is friendly and quickly warms to Whitehorse. He’s always questioning, in private, whether he could pull the trigger if the push really came to shove. Joe tells him to be quiet. Obviously Ox must have been through something similar to Joe to get this sort of assignment, but you really get the sense that Ox is more…human as opposed to Cage, who only seems to come alive when he’s gunning down the Japanese.
The first big push onto Saipan is perhaps the centerpiece of the movie. It’s a huge battle scene with American soldiers charging up a valley against dug in Japanese resistance. Planes and tanks are getting involved, there’s big wide shots of the action, loads of explosions, gun fire, costumed extras and chaos. It’s a far cry from the intimately sculpted and perfected sequences from Hard Target or Hard Boiled.
It’s here that Ben proves his worth; His squad, under the command of Peter Stormare (Constantine) is pinned down by heavy gun fire. After choking a bit during the first part of the strike, Ben pulls it together and calls in some artillery, saving the day. He wins the respect of marines Harrigan (Brian Von Holt – Bullet to the Head) and Pappas (Mark Ruffalo – Captain America: Civil War), but Chick is still pissy. They spend some time back at camp where they integrate a little more and then it’s back to the front line again and the process repeats ad nauseam.
Like there’s a scene where they need to use the radio to stop the US artillery bombarding them (they have the wrong coordinates) but the radio is broken so they have to sneakily use a Japanese one etc etc, basically variations on the first. Windtalkers doesn’t really play into the strengths or genre traits of what you’d expect from Native characters. The messages they’re relaying aren’t hugely significant in the grand scheme of things, nor is the fact that they’re Navajo. They could have been speaking Mexican for all the difference it makes.
To be fair, there are some good bits that are specific to the Navajo, like Ben and Charlie performing some ritual wear Whitehorse spreads ash on Ben’s face after the first battle. “I’m telling you I won’t freeze up again” he tells Joe. “Because your buddy smeared ash on your forehead?”. “That’s right, because my buddy smeared ash on my forehead”. I also liked “What a heap of magical Navajo horseshit!”. Quality swearing.
Ben is a likable guy, one you root for. Adam Beach has an easy charisma about him and you can see him breaking down Cage’s barriers. Them becoming buddies is an element of the film that does strike you as genuine, much unlike Bale and Studi’s sudden change of heart in Hostiles. Respect and admiration is formed naturally by both men in Windtalkers, and truly elevates it from an otherwise stock war movie. I love this kind of burgeoning buddy-hood in movies.
But the question is will Ben be put into a scenario where he’s gonna be captured, and will Joe have the heart to kill his friend?
After seducing Hollywood audiences with the likes of Hard Target, Broken Arrow, and Face/Off, Chinese director John Woo was handed the reins to an emerging American spy mega franchise: Mission Impossible. And while MI2 lacked the cerebrally subtle nuance of it’s progenitor, it expanded the scope of action cinema tremendously. While you might expect to spot the joins, the melding of Hong Kong action, Tom Cruise and a $100 million plus budget results in pure ocular eye-candy. Like some deranged pusher, Woo injected the franchise with a shot of adrenaline and while the sequel is perhaps it’s most bombastic, it had the balls to strip back a lot of the “thinky/slow” bits of the de Palma original.
Grossing over $500 million it was inexplicably the highest grossing movie of 2000. It beat the likes of Gladiator, X-Men, and my personal pick of the year, What Women Want (starring everyone’s favourite road warrior, Mel Gibson). MI2 was huge. Both Limp Bizkit and Metallica did songs for it. It was so big and crazy that I saw that motherfucker twice at the cinema. I even bought the soundtrack CD.
So John Woo literally had the world at his feet. So why did he chose to make a war movie, or as he calls it, an anti war movie. This was to be his machiavellian power move to ultra directoral domination. However, it backfired. First, promotion of the film was delayed due to the events of 9/11. And secondly, the movie just doesn’t hit home.
Despite all the money spunked on production (over $100 mil), it still doesn’t strike me as a period war film. I don’t know why. Perhaps it is the idea of American’s fighting in a jungle environment is so deeply associated with Vietnam movies, that it’s difficult to separate the two. Sort of like seeing Arnold in a RomCom, you spend most of the movie wondering when he’s gonna twist someone’s arm out of the socket. Plus, using stock footage of battleships bombarding things just doesn’t cut it for such a major movie.It’s undeniable that this set Woo back. His 2003 return in Paycheck was equally a dud at the box office. He hasn’t returned to American cinema since, and took an extended break before re-emerging to make the Chinese epic, Red Cliff. He at least got that one right.
As I’ve said above, I’ve no problems with any of the cast. Beach and Cage are decent. The support is quality too, with Slater playing the thoughtful nice guy, Emmerich having a blast as the heavy duty badass asshole, and a young Ruffalo as the emotional support. But the enemy remains pretty faceless. At the time I didn’t consider that this was potentially intentional, with Woo being Chinese and speaking darkly of family memories during war time. And I still don’t think it’s anything that personal. But as I’ve said before an action film without an identifiable “bad guy” is asking for trouble.
Even if it’s a group or the occasional recognizable foot soldier (like George Cheung in Rambo 2), you need to have an antagonist of equal or greater power to the good guys. This is what drives the tension and greats the need for the main characters to overcome. One giant army is not sufficient. This was one of the prime reasons the Great Wall sucked so bad.
Equally, the story is pretty much flat. It drifts away from being about Navajo code talkers and their importance and becomes more about Cage’s insanity and guilt. After falling on such a fantastic idea, I think Woo or the writers struggled with a direction to take the story. They had a great source of inspiration but they don’t really put the concept to good use. Like the Delorean – nice idea, but just doesn’t come up with the goods. I think they were too weighed down by trying to be realistic and true to history to consider something a bit different.
Sometimes being true to history can be detrimental. Take Men of Honor – another war movie about racially charged instances where one man chooses to fight against the inequalities thrown against him. It’s a great film with some brilliant performances. But the pacing sucks. And that’s because it follows true events. The story is effectively locked in before pen hits the paper.
Windtalkers didn’t have to take that direction. Instead, it should have done something like Saving Private Ryan – keeping things very real, yet isolating the characters in their own little story. Instead Windtalkers keeps thrusting the squad into giant attack after giant attack. It’s impressive the first time you see it, but doesn’t really hold water the third or fourth time. Because it’s so big, Woo can’t really focus on the tiny little thrills and gimmicks he uses so well. The action suffers because of it with each scene blending into one grey-green morass of mindless shooting, ducking and shouting. And there’s no doves anywhere!
Even a score from legendary composer James Horner (Magnificent Seven) can’t elevate this. The highs and lows are just drowned out by an overload of visual information. Like those warnings on packs of cigarettes, you’re aware they’re there but you just don’t pay any attention. You may tune in every once in a while but your attention is quickly re-diverted elsewhere.
Like in most films of this ilk, Ben and Whitehorse are eventually accepted as equals. But their heritage is just sort of glossed over. It would have been great say if Ben had performed some kind of death or remembrance ritual. He’d be on his own and all the other marines would think it stupid (one would think it’s spooky). By the end of it, they’d all be there, maybe not participating with Ben, but recognizing the significance of the act. Instead the film is effectively about a Navajo guy and Nicholas Cage in World War 2. It doesn’t really celebrate or utilize the Navajo background to any great degree, save for one scene.
Look, the efforts of the Navajo code talkers should be celebrated, and it’s a damn good thing to make a movie out of. It’s just a shame it’s not the best movie. I did appreciate the ending where it says the code was never broken. I love shit like that. But the rest of it was just forgettable. When I heard of the film the idea that jumped into my head was that Ben has to carry some super important secret message across enemy lines or something. Cage has to protect him. That’s a dramatic story. Alas.
Regardless of this belly aching still give it a shot. Out of respect for those real Code Talkers. At the very least this film will teach you some cool shit, like code words for tanks and so forth (it’s something like war buffalo, I can’t remember). You’ll find that everything on offer in Windtalkers has been done better elsewhere, but it’s certainly not a bad film. So get it watched.