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Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2002

John Woo breaks wind big-time


Rating: * *
Director: John Woo
Running time: 134 minutes
Language: English, Navajo, Japanese
Opens Aug. 24 at Shibuya Tokyu Bunka Kaikan

I remember getting to the end of the Omaha Beach assault scene in "Saving Private Ryan" and being totally blown away. No scene in cinema up to that point could compare in communicating the savage, random chaos and sheer piss-yourself terror of the battlefield. Its intensity and immediacy was almost too much, leaving the audience drained, both mentally and emotionally.

News photo
Nicolas Cage in John Woo's "Windtalkers"

This, I thought, is a breakthrough film. Unhappily, I also recall my thoughts over coffee a few hours later: This is going to get old fast, when every crappy action flick in Hollywood steals these techniques. How right I was. The "more is more" war movie -- where the idea seems to be to induce shell shock in the viewer -- has become a genre unto itself, and with John Woo's Pacific War gorefest "Windtalkers," it looks like a genre running on empty.

Let's back up a minute: The whole point of this up-close and under-fire technique was to attempt to communicate something of the reality of war. Love 'em or hate 'em, recent films like "Black Hawk Down" and "We Were Soldiers" at least grasped this basic precept, trying to give us the soldier's desperate perspective. But "Windtalkers," despite Woo's departure from his more over-the-top style ("Mission Impossible 2," "Face Off") in favor of a more dramatic approach, is one of the stupidest war movies you'll ever see.

Set in the Pacific campaign of World War II, Woo's film at least gets its history right: The U.S. is fighting the Japanese for control of strategic islands like Saipan, and central to its war effort is a small group of Navajo Indians, the codetalkers. Since the Navajo language was entirely unknown to the Japanese, the U.S. forces used the Native Americans to pass on radio messages in what was essentially an unbreakable code.

That is, unless the Japanese got their hands on a live Navajo. To prevent that from happening, each codetalker had a (white) minder, whose top-secret orders were to protect the code at all costs, even if that meant killing the Navajo trooper to keep him from falling into enemy hands.

In "Windtalkers," the increasingly boring Nic Cage plays Joe Enders, a good Marine who follows orders to the letter. He's assigned as the minder for a codetalker named Ben Yazee (Adam Beach), a naive young guy whose low-key attitude belies his determination. Reluctant to befriend someone he may have to kill, Enders treats Yazee coolly but eventually warms to him despite himself.

Now if there's anyone out there who can't already see where this one's going in the final reel, then you either (a) have never seen any war movies made in the past five decades, or (b) are amnesiac Lenny from "Memento." The soldier who defies orders to save his buddy is just one of a truckload of old-school war movie cliches that Woo trots out here. There's the squad full of stereotypes -- racist redneck, blonde beach boy, urban ethnic, doomed married guy, etc. There's a love-interest nurse, in an unbearably superfluous role. There's also the guy with a premonition of his own fate and the soldier with the flamethrower (no points for guessing how he's gonna buy it).

But worse than the lazy reliance on war movie cliches is Woo's treatment of battle, which -- for all its jazzy pyrotechnics and squibs -- feels phony from beginning to end. "The Thin Red Line," a similar look at Pacific island combat, was deliberately arty at times, but it nevertheless captured combat that stank of dirt, sweat, blood and gunpowder. Soldiers did things that real soldiers do: duck, crawl, "eat dirt" and seek cover, flank the enemy, get medics to treat the wounded, follow and question orders.

In "Windtalkers," the only order is "Charge!" as both U.S. and Japanese soldiers run around at full height shooting each other like ducks in a pond. Six shots from a pistol send six soldiers down. A mere bazooka blows up a hillside like a nuke. One starts to get the feeling that people are always blown up from behind while they're running so that they can fall gracefully toward the camera while a fireball erupts artistically behind them. Indeed, the constant use of slow-motion every time someone gets blown away begins to stink of necrophilia.

While some will no doubt see this as yet more of Woo's trademark "bullet ballet," it's worth nothing that he is supposedly aiming for realism, not stylized action, and that this whole technique is a steal from Sam Peckinpah, who used it far more sparingly and to far greater effect.

It may be asking too much of a director who's spent 95 percent of his career making violence into fun, adrenaline-pumping entertainment to suddenly do an about-face and show us the grim horror of real-world war. Yet that's the task Woo set for himself. Too bad he couldn't shake his old habits.

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