"Windtalkers" might just be the most unfocused movie John Woo has ever made.
Revered by fans for his distinctive visual style, the director of such action flicks as "Face/Off" and "Mission: Impossible 2" seems conflicted here.
"Windtalkers," the story of American Indians recruited as Marines and trained to use their language as code during World War II, feels about 40 years old, with its faded colors and bombastic, horn-heavy score. Maps with moving arrows plot the soldiers' movement toward the Battle of Saipan, and at one point, it even looks as if Woo inserted grainy old footage of guns being fired from a battleship.
Yet the carnage is as graphic as every other war movie to come along since Steven Spielberg set the standard in 1998 with "Saving Private Ryan." Blood splatters the camera lens repeatedly, and bodies get blown to bits in slow motion. One soldier loses his lower leg in an explosion, and the mangled stump is shoved in our faces.
We're also forced to look repeatedly at the gnarled ear of Marine Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage), who was injured in an earlier battle in which most of his squad died. After recuperating at a hospital, he's assigned to protect Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), one of the Navajo code talkers.
Considering that the movie is called "Windtalkers," the Navajos don't speak in code that often. They communicate in their language over crackly radio transmissions, with English subtitles, but there's no crucial moment in which the code comes into play. So the early scenes in which they learn to use their words secretly seem like wasted exposition.
But it is a fascinating topic, an angle on World War II that hasn't been explored previously. And the battle scenes are vast, visceral and impressive; Woo's use of jumpy hand-held camera makes you feel like you're in the trenches with these men.
Too bad the script from John Rice and Joe Batteer is utterly devoid of a driving story arc. There's a battle, then the men get to know each other, then there's another battle, then they get to know each other some more.
In between, the white soldiers overcome their racism toward the American Indians, and Christian Slater's character, Marine Ox Henderson, finds time to sit down for a couple of cringeworthy harmonica concerts with the Navajo he's protecting, played by Roger Willie.
There are the usual war movie cliches; you know that when a soldier takes off his wedding band and hands it to the guy sitting next to him in the trench -- to give to his wife in case something, you know, happens to him -- that it's only a matter of time before something, you know, happens to him.
And there's the obligatory (yet totally unnecessary) romance between Enders and Rita (Frances O'Connor), a nurse who helps him recover from an injury early in the film. O'Connor plays a role similar to Kate Beckinsale's last year in "Pearl Harbor." She's soft and pretty, she faithfully writes perfumed letters, and that's about it.
Her attraction to Enders is kind of baffling, actually. Enders just broods the whole time. Every time the camera cuts back to him, he looks more morose than the last.
It's the same look Cage has worn in "City of Angels," "Bringing Out the Dead," "Captain Corelli's Mandolin," and nearly every other movie he's made since he won an Oscar for 1995's "Leaving Las Vegas."
But as Ben Yahzee, Beach is a real find. He's warm and magnetic with a great smile, though his sunny disposition does nothing to make Cage's character more interesting.
"Windtalkers," an MGM release, is rated R for pervasive graphic war violence, and for language. Running time: 134 minutes. Two stars (out of four).
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