The opening-credit sequence of Windtalkers -- a montage of Monument Valley -- instantly invokes memories of the opening of John Woo's immediately previous film, Mission: Impossible 2, in which Tom Cruise was dangling off a rock. It is the last moment of similarity between the two.
Windtalkers is a World War II epic, based on a fascinating and relatively obscure story from that war: In order to frustrate Japanese codebreakers, the U.S. Marines recruited 29 Navajo Indians to develop a code based on their language -- a tongue that the Japanese were unlikely to identify, let alone have their own experts in. (Other Native-American languages had been similarly used in World War I, though apparently to a lesser extent.) Eventually hundreds of Navajo "codetalkers" were employed as the backbone of communication in the Pacific war effort. It wasn't until 1968 that the code was declassified and the story emerged.
After a very brief introduction to codetalkers-to-be Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach) and Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie), we meet the movie's real protagonist, Sgt. Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage), in the midst of a chilling battle; his strict adherence to orders gets everyone under his command killed. Despite being haunted by this failure -- or, perhaps, because of it -- Enders is eager to get back into action, as though he will be able to atone next time around. But he's setting himself up for an even worse situation: The superior officers love the fact that Enders insisted on enforcing military discipline, even when it was the wrong move. So they assign him as Ben Yahzee's babysitter, charged with protecting the code first and Yahzee second. That is, Enders's boss makes it clear that, if capture seems imminent, Enders should kill Yahzee himself rather than risk the latter's being tortured and giving up the code. Sgt. "Ox" Henderson (Christian Slater), Charlie Whitehorse's escort, is given the same orders. (Would such orders be given so blithely if the codetalkers were white? The film never really approaches this issue.)
Historically there doesn't seem to be any evidence that such a policy existed, but it sets up the perfect emotional/moral conflict for the already-tormented Enders. He does his best to be even more of a cold son of a bitch than might be his nature, to avoid bonding with Yahzee, but Yahzee is too likable a guy for Enders to hold out forever.
Always a brilliant technician, Woo has here applied his skills to a handsome production, with several battle scenes of nearly unbearable tension. Yet in many ways, Windtalkers feels like he's playing against his strengths. For a start, fans of the sort of beautifully choreographed and edited action sequences that catapulted Woo to fame will find very little of that here. War films, as a genre, are less conducive to aesthetically pleasing, slo-mo shootouts and stunts than urban gangster movies. The director is more constrained here by realism. In fact it might have seemed downright offensive to use his dynamic, multiple-speed action montage style here.
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Woo's best films are also marked by an unabashed earnestness and melodrama. This one has that in spades. Unfortunately in a World War II setting we've seen it too many times before -- Windtalkers reprises all the old standards, like the guy with his wife's picture in his hat who might as well have a big "kill me" sign painted on his back in fluorescent orange. The over-the-top sincerity that is so rewarding in Face/Off (1998), Woo's best American film, feels too clichéd in this more conventional context.
Having said that, the movie does develop a real wallop by the end, driven largely by Cage's performance. As usual Cage seems possessed by his role. (Slater, no stranger to excess himself, plays it straight, functioning as a more approachable figure of identification, as he did in Broken Arrow.) The rest of the cast is reasonably effective, although as Enders's commander, the usually wonderful Peter Stormare sports an accent that is both distracting and at times nearly incomprehensible.
Par for the course, it seems as though a major studio couldn't quite bring itself to tell this sort of story strictly from the Native-American point of view rather than making it mostly about the white guy. As strong as Enders's thematic material is, there is a second story going on here -- the feelings of the Navajos, who are painfully aware of their second-class status, even as they bend over backward and get themselves killed trying to prove just what good citizens they are. We get some of that story, and at moments Beach and Cage seem almost to be given equal emotional weight. But only at moments.