Archive for Thursday, June 13, 2002

Windtalkers’ takes exploitative approach to story of Navajo code

(R) *1/2

June 13, 2002

John Woo is the consummate filmmaker when it comes to crafting violent eye-candy. His gloriously mechanical technique provides a perfect fit for the hyper-stylized fury of his Chinese films like "Hard-Boiled" and later Hollywood undertakings "M:I-2" and "Face/Off."

Unfortunately, when it comes to creating a movie actually "about something," Woo is at a complete loss. The director can show a bullet zipping through a man's chest with surgical precision, but he can't provide any context for which the audience should care that the man just died. To him the word "heart" represents only a blood-pumping organ.

This is a real shame for the film "Windtalkers," a genuinely fascinating piece of American history reduced by Woo to a near-psychopathic bloodbath full of transparent jingoism. With the same script, same actors, same crew and different director, this picture might have been worthwhile. Instead it's a loud, ridiculous jumble that uses its central topic only as a means to go from one gratuitous confrontation to another.

"Windtalkers" follows the tale of two Navajo friends in 1944 who enlist in the U.S. military to become code talkers. Since the Japanese had broken all previous radio codes the Americans attempted, elements of the Navajo language were being weaved into a pattern that only other tribe members could comprehend.

Fresh from Monument Valley, Utah, Private Yahzee (Adam Beach, "Smoke Signals") and Private Whitehorse (Roger Willie) ship out to help capture the Japanese island of Saipan - a key strategic base for winning the war in the Pacific.

"I've never seen so many white men," Whitehorse says to his friend when they first arrive on the island.

"They've never seen so many Navajo," he replies.

Assigned to protect the code are Marine sergeants Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) and Peter "Ox" Henderson (Christian Slater). Enders is worse for the wear, having sustained intense injuries during a previous melee that left his entire unit dead. When his superiors reveal to him that he has standing orders to kill his Navajo code talker rather than let him be captured, Enders doesn't have a problem with the concept.

As one violent confrontation gives way to another, Enders and Yahzee watch the men around them get whittled down by the Japanese defense effort. But as the formerly happy-go-lucky Yahzee transforms into a ferocious warrior, Enders develops respect for his companion and begins to morally question his own duties.

Despite Woo's talent with action scenes, "Windtalkers" never achieves the slightest hint of combat realism. "Saving Private Ryan," "Black Hawk Down" and even TV's "Band of Brothers" have raised the collective bar in this arena, making Woo's redundant slow-motion deaths and fire-suit tricks come across like a show reel at a stuntmen convention. (Also adding to the fakery, Woo actually inserts stock footage of battleships firing that clearly don't match his other shots.)

Only when avoiding large-scale battle scenes does the $100 million project manifest any kind of drama. The most effective sequence occurs when Yahzee passes for a Japanese soldier with Enders as his prisoner in an attempt to gain access to an enemy radio. Here, the brutality of the environment is momentarily compelling.

While "Windtalkers" pays lip service to the culture of the Navajo a protection ceremony is shown, as are a few other specifics it doesn't delve very deep. Beach's performance as Yahzee rarely helps matters. The soldier is shown as so beatific (he is perpetually smiling) and completely unfazed by the racism surrounding him that he is almost a caricature. He's constantly required by the script to turn the other cheek when there's no reason for him to behave that way. If he's such a pacifist, why is he volunteering for combat duty?

Then following a traumatic incident, the audience is asked to believe Yahzee could instantaneously change into a berserker who in the grand Schwarzenegger tradition is impervious to bullets and able to kill dozens of machine-gun toting foes with a single pistol. It's one of many times that the filmmakers confuse bloodlust with honor.

Ironically, in Woo's attempt to humanize the Navajo he neglects to give the same consideration to the Japanese. The faceless enemy is portrayed no better than in the "yellow peril" propaganda films of the era. And in one ludicrous moment involving Enders and a Japanese family encountered at an occupied village, Woo implies that Japanese men treated their women and children worse than the invading American soldiers.

Woo grew up in post-war Hong Kong and no doubt has some definite feelings toward the Japanese, who conquered the city in 1941. This apparent acrimony wouldn't necessarily be a handicap for a war movie if the central plot didn't hinge so much on racists coming to grips with their racism.

There is nothing unwatchable about "Windtalkers." The idea is intriguing and the cast and production values are above average. But Woo's film offers an empty experience that only superficially examines a significant historic occurrence. The Americans who gave their lives using and protecting the Navajo code deserve a better homage than this.

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