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Crazy Horse Cage and Dances With Guns
Jul 13, 2002 11:29 PM 1850 Views
(Updated Jul 13, 2002 11:29 PM)





Much like the British mathematicians’ deciphering methods of Bletchley Park, the Native Americans’ Navajo language was an essential gear in the Allies massive war machine that put an end to the Axis powers of World War II. The Navajo language provided an impregnable means of communication in the war and more specifically in the battles of the Pacific. A way to clearly communicate for help or instruction without the fear of the Japanese radio men translating the messages’ language, because most likely the Japanese had little knowledge of Native Americans and more importantly, their language. Interestingly enough, the Navajo are protectors and users of an Ally code while the heroes of Michael Apted’s Enigma were code breakers, working to open the codes used by the enemy. Separating and closely tying the Navajo and the British parallel, are the films chronicling the, perhaps fictional, events most significant or most interesting for entertainment’s sake. The difference is that Apted’s film is a study of paranoia and loneliness set during the war while John Woo’s ill-conceived Windtalkers is a heavy-handed, melodramatic war exploitation actioner.

Woo has rarely had much (critical) success with the Hollywood system and personally I think it’s corrupted him. His career of reflective, blood-bath meditations in the Hong Kong cinema such as The Killer was replaced, here in the States, with a résumé riddled with the same amount of bullet holes only with less than excellent results (the brainless Broken Arrow and Mission: Impossible 2, etc.) Woo brings his same patent flair for action sequences to the realm of WWII but is utterly incapable of any kind of emotional thrills despite the visual style’s knack for visceral action. From this visual virtuoso’s palette we’re given tons and tons of slow-motion kinetics and massive pyrotechnics displays, and whirling stuntmen abound. But behind all this dull action lies a vast and gaping hole that the vapid script hopes to disguise; there’s no chemistry between the actors and the plot is a horrible retread.

Windtalkers is consumed by errors but one of the biggest includes its casting of Nicolas Cage as the lead, depressed sergeant, horrifically conflicted over his position. Cage is best used for evoking a weird sense of manic intensity; here he’s a dry and boring cliché of a hero. And speaking of Cage’s presence, he just doesn’t seem to embody anything remotely war-weary or seasoned in terms of a veteran (although he was effective in Birdy), unlike tough guys born to play them, e.g. John Wayne, Mel Gibson, etc. He’s much better with lone psychos or disturbed antiheroes rather than the colossal every-man single-handedly saving the day. The role and the film even seem to draw from those mentioned, inspiring actors; it has distinct elements from Wayne’s Sands of Iwo Jima and an odd atmosphere similar to Gibson’s recent We Were Soldiers (despite its Vietnam setting). Woo’s Windtalkers isn’t nearly up to par with those, nor anywhere near Spielberg’s classic Saving Private Ryan or Malick’s lyrical The Thin Red Line. Instead, Woo takes a rather captivating premise for a war film and molds it into the usual heroic garble mixed with his fetish for visual poetry, consequently repelling thrills, both emotional and sensational.

Its premise employs the historical notions of Native Americans joining the U.S. Marines during WWII in order to make good use of the Navajo language during critical and necessarily confidential communication. We meet the young, perky and ambitious Pvt. Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach, Smoke Signals) as he joins the Marines along with his strangely older and overweight friend, Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie). A depressed and emotionally/physically scarred, martinet sergeant, Joe Enders (a dull Cage) has just undergone hell as he witnessed his entire squad’s annihilation by the Japanese. Enders sits restlessly in the hospital awaiting his impending recovery and a chance for, perhaps, revenge. But the trauma and waiting hardens Enders into a bitter and cold stone-face, waiving off a sweet-natured nurse (a completely underused and transparent Frances O’Connor).

Meanwhile, Yahzee and Whitehorse train with other Native Americans, and learn the basic deciphering and translating methods for code names of weaponry, gear, coordinates, etc. Enders is then given the very secret and special assignment of guiding and watching over a Navajo code-master who, obviously, turns out to be Yahzee. The importance and main objective of his assignment is to protect the code and if the code-bearer should be in danger of capture, eliminate him because the Japanese will torture, until all of the valuable information is squeezed out. Thus, Enders wants to remain as neutral and indifferent towards Yahzee as possible in the case that he must carry out the orders and execute his partner.

Windtalkers is in the style of the “by the numbers”, belligerent, xenophobic and sheepishly heroic war type films with a complete lack of vigor and originality, particularly in its execution. It blindly negates the fact that no matter how big the explosions, nothing can make it the least bit exciting, even Woo’s visual artistry is nearly absent. It becomes a watered-down bloodbath and an incomprehensive war-torn hole, displaying everything that makes a war movie but by no means, truly grasping any of it. Woo’s cinematography is overly crisp and lustrous, perfectly exemplifying how to not film a war sequence, as the griminess of war should be exposed on film and not glittering camera tricks. But what shiny camera tricks Woo possesses, as usual, pouring them onto the screen with a kind of insane sense of anti-thought, potently bombastic in every way.

This powder keg of a misfire is pathetic and needlessly time consuming, rumbling on its own fumes of aggression peddling its misguided vision to exact justice on the racist tones of the army and honor the memory of the Navajo code-keepers. It has quite honorable intentions but is so blasé and brain-draining in its battle choreography that Woo nearly dishonors his based subjects and intentions. Meanwhile it satiates the viewers with graceful explosion after graceful explosion and one bloody massacre after another with the same kind of joyously jingoistic lunacy that saturated Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. Pummeling the characters into a cardboard set of cornball clichés complementing the awfully cliched plot, Windtalkers hopes to sidestep any noticeable histrionics by boring the audiences to death. And because Woo rarely exhibits any kind of intellect on screen, only a kind of massive and usually fantastic visual brilliance, he is incapable of bringing out the story’s emotion, if it contained any in the first place. It’s no wonder why this blunder sat in the can for a year.

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