on June 14, 2002 by Francesca Dinglasan
   Helmer John Woo's "Windtalkers" attempts to differentiate itself from the slew of Second World War films that have been released over the past several years by focusing on the U.S. Marines' true-life use of the Navajo language to relay encrypted communiqués--a code that the enemy Japanese had been unable to break. Unfortunately, this otherwise interesting historical premise functions as merely a launching point for what ultimately amounts to a guys-from-the-opposite-side-of-the-tracks buddy pic with the visual benefit of multimillion-dollar pyrotechnics.

   Indicative of the secondary role of the actual Navajo-based code is the film's overriding concern with the background story of Joe Enders (Nicholas Cage), a war veteran traumatized by his first-hand battle experiences. A faithful soldier whose by-the-book approach to war directly results in the death of several men under his charge, Enders is so paradoxically eager to return to the front that he has a military nurse (Frances O'Connor) assist him pass a hearing assessment test that he would otherwise fail due to a war injury to his head. His road to moral redemption arrives in the form of Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), an eager young Navajo-American eager to do his part for the country as a code talker. Enders is paired with Yahzee to guard the younger soldier, operating under the portentous command to "protect the code at all costs"--an obvious euphemism for "kill the code talker before the Japanese torture the code out of him." Enders' initial standoffishness towards Yahzee slowly begins to melt away as they face wartime challenges together, until he is eventually forced to confront the expected choice of protecting the code or saving his friend.

   While the performances turned in by Cage and Beach, as well as by much of the supporting cast, are perfectly palatable, there is little to be done with John Rice and Joe Batteer's cliché-ridden script, which falls back time and time again on the conventions of the film's genre. In addition to Cage's shell-shocked vet and Beach's anxious new enlistee, "Windtalkers" makes sure that the roll call of overly-familiar WWII cinematic characters are represented, including the racist but patriotic Southern hick (Noah Emmerich) who has trouble dealing with "injuns" and the high-strung soldier (Mark Ruffalo) whose nerves debilitate him come battle-time.

   "Windtalkers'" unequivocally strongest attribute is its sweeping scenery, which can be credited to director of photography Jeffrey Kimball's beautiful framing of Hawaii, standing in for Saipan. The sharp contrast between the film's bloody battles and the isles' sharp blue skies and lush green foliage is a sight to behold. It's a vision, however, that comes at the price of the recycled characters, narrative and plot resolution that "Windtalkers" boils down to, making a color vacation pamphlet on Hawaii the more preferable option. Starring Nicholas Cage, Adam Beach, Christian Slater, Peter Stormare, Noah Emmerich, Mark Ruffalo and Frances O'Connor. Directed by John Woo. Written by John Rice and Joe Batteer. Produced by John Woo, Terence Chang, Tracie Graham and Alison Rosenzweig. An MGM release. Drama. Rated R for pervasive graphic war violence and for language. Running time: 134 min

Tags: World War II, war, soldiers, Navajo, history, John Woo, Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Frances O'Connor, Christian Slater, Peter Stormare, Noah Emmerich, Mark Ruffalo, Terence Chang

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