According to screenwriter Robert Towne, the script for "Mission: Impossible 2" was written around the action sequences that director John Woo had in mind for the film, which partly explains why the plot made little sense as it careened from one double-fisted shootout to the next. Unfortunately, it seems that the same thing has happened again with Woo's latest Hollywood offering, "Windtalkers", which takes a fascinating and little-known aspect (at least for those who didn't watch "The X-Files") of the Second World War and buries it beneath redundantly redundant scenes of excessive pyrotechnics and battlefield carnage.
"Windtalkers" is centered around the Allied invasion of the Japanese island of Saipan during the summer of 1944, when a new code based on the Navajo language was first deployed. Prior to the use of Navajo codetalkers, the Japanese had successfully broken all the other codes, compromising the Allied effort in the Pacific. Privates Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach) and Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie) are two such codetalkers stationed on the frontlines, while battle-scarred Marine Sergeant Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage, who previously appeared in Woo's "Face/Off") and always-sunny Sergeant Ox Anderson (Christian Slater of Woo's "Broken Arrow") have been assigned as their bodyguards.
However, true to the John Woo tradition, the orders of Enders and Anderson are a double-edged sword-- though their jobs are to ensure the safety of the codetalkers, if their codetalker is on the verge of being captured, it is their duty to protect the code, which means killing them, creating all sorts of internal conflicts. And to further complicate matters, the stench of racism hangs heavy in the air, particularly from Corporal Chick Rogers (Noah Emmerich of "Frequency"), whose harassing behavior runs the full spectrum from baiting comments (such as invoking the name of General Custer) to physical violence.
Despite the fascinating possibilities offered by the film's premise, "Windtalkers" ends up being a painfully mediocre war film. Part of the problem is Woo's undivided attention on creating drawn-out, graphically violent, and extremely loud scenes of brutal warfare. Yes, war is hell, but here it seems to be little more than a gimmicky exercise in technical proficiency and special effects, which incidentally, was the same problem with last year's "Pearl Harbor". Even on a pure visceral level, the battle sequences for the most part lack visual flair, as Woo eschews his trademark artistically choreographed violence for more run-of-the-mill action direction.
Woo's intentions are further underscored by the cliché-ridden filler material that is sandwiched between these big battle scenes, to which the term 'plot' can be loosely ascribed. The dedication of scribes John Rice and Joe Batteer (who worked together previously on the far more interesting "Blown Away" from 1994) in squeezing in almost every war movie cliché is at times embarrassing. In addition to the antagonistic bigot, other instances of cinematic déja vu include the bigot becoming a changed man after being saved by the very person he torments, the playing of the harmonica around a campfire, the 'show a picture of your loved ones' death sentence, the shell-shocked veteran finding courage to return to the battlefield, and so on.
"Windtalkers" also could have benefited from ending ten minutes earlier (spoilers ahead!). A key scene in the film's climax has Enders faced with the ultimate choice between duty and loyalty when he and Yahzee find themselves low on ammo and surrounded by unfriendlies. Of course, given that it is a Hollywood movie, the protagonists not only find renewed inspiration to carry on, but the enemy soldiers suddenly become bad shots, allowing the heroes to limp to safety. But what if Enders had made another choice in that scene and indeed killed Yahzee to protect the war effort? The result would have been a far more compelling ending, with undeniable relevance to the post-September 11th world, where governments and law enforcement officials are struggling with finding the balance between individual liberties and public safety, weighing the needs of the many against those of the few, or the one.
Cast-wise, Cage does a respectable job as a soldier with a shattered spirit, while Beach seems a little too cheery in his portrayal of Yahzee. Recognizable faces in the supporting cast, who are relegated to playing one-dimensional archetypes, includes Peter Stormare (seen recently in "Minority Report") as an unintelligible commanding officer and Frances O'Connor ("A.I.: Artificial Intelligence") in the film's only female role (a.k.a. desperate attempt to woo the female demographic to a hardware movie), as a nurse who helps Enders with his recovery.
Given the numerous problems, it is of little surprise that "Windtalkers" has been disappointing at the box office. With its $120 million budget and meagre $30+ million take to date, "Windtalkers" has become the fourth consecutive box office bomb for beleaguered studio MGM, joining the ranks of "Bandits", "Hart's War", and "Rollerball". Aside from its financial failure, "Windtalkers" is also disappointing effort for John Woo purists, as the director's Hollywood career has produced more films in the vein of "Broken Arrow" and "Mission: Impossible 2" than "Face/Off" or any of his classic Hong Kong productions. Hopefully Woo's next two efforts, "Hero (Yin xiong)" (in which he and the acclaimed Zhang Yimou co-direct Jet Li, Tony Leung, and Maggie Cheung in a martial arts extravaganza) and "Men of Destiny" (which reunites him with Chow Yun-fat), will return him to fine form, leaving efforts like "Windtalkers" as little more than a distant memory.