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Overall Rating

Awesome: 8.79%
Worth A Look36.26%
Average: 21.98%
Pretty Bad: 20.88%
Total Crap: 12.09%

6 reviews, 55 user ratings

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by Andrew Howe

"How Woo got his groove back"
4 stars

It’s the first year of the new millennium, and I’m sharing a beer with John Woo in a Hong Kong bar. I’m telling him how The Killer, Bullet in the Head and Face/Off redefined the concept of heroic bloodshed; how things have never been the same for Chow Yun-Fat since he started playing low-grade imitations of Woo’s ice-cool heroes; and how I’ll never tire of slow-motion action sequences as long as he’s the man shooting them. Then I put my hand on his shoulder and ask him what he was thinking when he signed up for Mission Impossible 2, because wasting your talents is the greatest crime a master craftsman can commit.

In the words of John Milius: it’s not the way it was, but it’s the way it should have been.

Wars have been won and lost in the time it took Woo to bring Windtalkers to the screen, and I’d like to say it’s because he invested as many hours as he needed to paint his masterpiece. That would be a lie – it’s solid, but it’s certainly not spectacular, and those of us who have been keeping the faith will be waiting a little longer for our reward. However, it’s obvious Woo is invested in his creation, and if he can take that passion and transfer it to a script of his own devising we might live to see an unconditional comeback from the original action hero.

The war in the Pacific provided countless tales of real-life heroism, and Windtalkers focuses on the use of Navajo “code talkers” to create an unbreakable code derived from their language. Sergeant Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) and Ben Anderson (Christian Slater) are assigned to “protect” two Navajo recruits during the Pacific campaign, which includes silencing them for good if capture appears imminent. This initially puts a damper on their relationship with Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach) and Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie), but storming the island of Saipan leaves plenty of time for bonding, mutual respect and introspective self-analysis.

Anyone who saw We Were Soldiers during its recent release will be experiencing an unsettling sense of déjà vu, since both films are essentially one long battle sequence punctuated by something resembling character building. Windtalkers is the better of the two, but it gets off to a truly abysmal start. After a stunning opening firefight we’re plunged into a minefield of clichés (a showdown with a racist squad member, the “Send my wedding ring to my wife if I die” scene, and many others), banal dialogue and an extended battle sequence that might have been shocking if Saving Private Ryan hadn’t already written the book on the subject (and which also features – I kid you not – stock footage of a naval bombardment that looks about thirty years older than the rest of the print).

The scribes responsible for this mess are John Rice and Joe Batteer, whose combined resumes boast the likes of Blown Away as highlights. However, you get the impression they went to lunch halfway through the script and returned with a renewed enthusiasm to write something worth watching, since the second half of the film delivers everything the premise promised.

Any script that puts its characters in harm’s way hinges on one immutable truism – if the audience doesn’t give a damn about the fate of the protagonists you might as well pack it in and go home. Failing to heed this sage advice nearly scuttled We Were Soldiers, but an hour into Windtalkers Rice and Batteer finally get around to building their creations, and their (albeit limited) success injects the required tension into the final confrontations.

Enders is actually the odd man out, since he’s not a particularly likeable soul. He’s wrestling with his conscience after forcing his previous squad to fight to the last (one of them even had the bad manners to damn Enders to hell with his dying breath), and the injuries he sustained have left him a little short in the charity department. Scripting a flawed hero was a brave move, but it succeeds as often as it fails, not the least because he’s portrayed by the perpetually mournful Cage. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin left many viewers petitioning for a ban on his future involvement in WWII dramas, but in Windtalkers he lets his machine gun do the serenading as he sinks deeper into borderline insanity. Cage gets so far into the role that Enders’s eventual redemption rings hollow, and by the time he sees the light you’re ready to put a bullet into him yourself. It robs the climax of some of its clout, but it’s a refreshing change from the gung-ho supermen and sensitive saints that usually lead the charge.

Beach spends most of the film grinning like an idiot, and since Woo wasn’t telling jokes in the background I can only assume he was attempting to communicate his character’s naiveté. It’s severely off-putting, however, and undermines an otherwise solid contribution to the proceedings. The other victims are Noah Emmerich, who submerges his personable demeanour beneath the role of the neighbourhood redneck, and Peter Stormare, whose Swedish accent reduces his attempts to play a hard-ass sergeant to the level of a Carry On film.

The success stories are Slater, who comes through in fine form as a soldier who’s everything Enders isn’t, and Willie’s memorable performance as a man wise beyond his years (which is probably why he’s never asked to smile). The supporting players make the best of their limited screen time, and while the scriptwriters don’t entirely jettison the clichés in the second half (Emmerich’s speech about being friends with the Nipponese in forty years is as subtle as a bayonet to the privates) they take an occasional break from the jackhammer to give the performers something to work with. Enders and Yahzee reflecting on their Catholic upbringing, a marine wondering how his job description ever came to include barbequing Japanese soldiers, the basic human kindness shown to the occupants of a captured village, Anderson and Whitehorse jamming the night away with flutes and harmonicas – every little bit helps, and by the time the narrative hits its stride you’ll be crying out for each and every one of them to make it home alive.

And that’s when Woo finally takes his foot off the brakes, presenting us with a couple of squad-based action sequences that’ll leave you as stunned as the participants. He’s always done his best work up close, assaulting our senses with thundering handguns and multiple exit wounds, so it’s no surprise that the sprawling initial incursions (complete with highly impersonal artillery and long-range sniping) lack his usual flair. However, once things get personal he reminds us how he earned his reputation, and the shattering penultimate firefight puts the competition to shame. You get the impression he misses his trademarks – the Pacific is a dove-free zone, so he shelves the symbolism and settles for a shot of an island bird instead, while excessive use of slo-mo would have been inappropriate – but plenty of scenes bear the unmistakeable imprint of the greatest action director of our time. (Why would you unload an entire clip into an enemy’s twitching body when a single bullet would suffice? Why would you run across the battlefield to bayonet them when you could fire off a couple of well-placed rounds from the safety of a nearby foxhole? Woo says – “Why not?”)

It’s possible the film’s stature will increase over time, since the investment we gain in the characters during the later stages will dilute the first half’s failings on subsequent viewings. As it stands the flaws are too great to warrant an unconditional endorsement, but it remains a powerful and involving effort that serves up blistering action, credible performances and dashes of something a little deeper. I still have visions about sharing that beer with Mr. Woo, but these days we part on considerably better terms.

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originally posted: 06/06/02 18:36:22
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User Comments

9/14/17 morris campbell good action thats about it 3 stars
8/05/13 SniperSarge I enjoyed the movie 4 stars
11/29/07 Bnorm Shameful piece of dookie. Nic Cage is in no way bad ass. At all. 1 stars
9/27/07 Sugarfoot John Woo has lost it, period. See A Bullet In The Head over this junk 1 stars
9/18/07 Fast Cow i love this movie. natives rule....yay adam beach..... 5 stars
4/19/07 Stevo UK Another film where the hero stands in plain sight killing millions of baddies. 3 stars
4/13/07 David Pollastrini a bit slow in places but still good. 4 stars
3/01/07 Mouse it sucks 1 stars
7/29/06 arvi excellent movie 5 stars
5/19/06 drydock54321 not the best. but ok 3 stars
11/21/05 Quigley the movie would have better if it wasn't so poorly cast. the navajos were the best 3 stars
10/03/05 Hawaiian Shoot me if I ever want to see another John Woo film again! Total waste of a great story 1 stars
8/24/05 ES Here's your 1st hint- directed by John Woo, 2nd- starring Nic Cage 1 stars
2/15/05 R.W. Welch May have the highest body count ever. A few good scenes. 3 stars
2/04/05 Dan Pretty Good actually, kind of hollywoodish, but what do you expect in a Woo Film? 4 stars
1/17/05 Landshark Adam Beach & Roger Willie characters not given development, just orders...*YAWN* 2 stars
12/10/04 Steve Newman Disappointed that the "Windtalker" story was not enhanced. War scenes great 4 stars
8/24/04 albert very good woo 4 stars
7/01/04 "Meth Lab" for Dummies. Not a bad flick... !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
5/10/04 Derek Denfeld I loved the movie. the graphics were soo awesome. i think yazee was the best character 5 stars
1/11/04 The Wizard of Flix Cage thinking Oscar again but only succeeding in presenting himself as Hamlet in a High S 2 stars
11/30/03 john inept! John Woo made his good movies in Hong Kong 1 stars
11/29/03 Agent Sands (previously Mr. Hat) It's OK, but the war scenes are never very powerful. Not up to John Woo par. 3 stars
6/26/03 cochese dissapointingly horrible. 1 stars
6/26/03 J Really cool! 4 stars
6/04/03 Picky critic Great idea for a movie, but everything-especially the fighting scenes--seems very contrived 1 stars
6/04/03 liz we watched it in class and one girl kept on freking 5 stars
6/03/03 Charles Tatum Woo overdirects a corny underwritten script 2 stars
5/16/03 mr. Pink clichèd and Cage's bad. But Woo sometimes excites with his orchestra of violence 3 stars
4/24/03 Andrew Carden Underrated, Misunderstood Drama With Fantastic Performances. 5 stars
4/08/03 Vince kickass explosions and people getting fucked up. no story. 4 stars
2/20/03 Ian Jesus. So poor I could weep. 1 stars
12/23/02 Ryback Good, but not great, liked the music and slow motion 4 stars
11/10/02 Bob Nesbitt Very predictable-seen the same plot in hundreds of war films. 3 stars
10/22/02 cinkcool Good. 4 stars
9/25/02 Carly All Woo knows how to do is blow up things. How about talking about the Windtalkers more. 2 stars
8/30/02 Edith the Maid and Meredith the Mermaid Improtant story, sloppily told 4 stars
8/29/02 Dean expected sooo much more. My mistake 1 stars
8/28/02 viking Better than Pearl Harbour, but a long way behind Saving Private Ryan 3 stars
8/19/02 Mr. Hat (I'm Back!) Another great John Woo movie. 4 stars
8/19/02 stryper rocks Too many gasoline-enhanced explosions. How about developing the Navajo characters more? 3 stars
8/17/02 brainiac adam beach & george willie great; war gore, slater's harmonica & oconnor's role bad... 2 stars
7/05/02 malcolm once again, Woo shows American filmmakers how it's done 4 stars
6/21/02 spaceworm Too loud to hear any talking; lots of wind, where a gentle breeze would do. 3 stars
6/19/02 thejames not the most complex plot but one of the more ENTERTAINING ww2 movies in recent years. 4 stars
6/18/02 Charles Goin Not your typical war movie and that point seems to have been missed by far too many. 5 stars
6/17/02 Todd A slap in the face of all WW2 vets. 2 stars
6/17/02 Waste of money A one dimensional, cliche ridden, corny crapfest! 1 stars
6/17/02 "Yes the shit." A very poor movie. Action sequences sometimes makes no sense. What a waste. 2 stars
6/17/02 Anarchy Azmi nothing but a lot of japanese dying everywhere 3 stars
6/15/02 Nick2k i liked it...but i'm getting bored with war flicks, mr. & mrs. hollywood.... 4 stars
6/13/02 S M I could not watch a lot of this movie because of the graphic violence. I was horrified to 3 stars
6/12/02 Crystrial Murphy I loved the Native actors. The action graphics were extremely surprising. 4 stars
6/07/02 Jaydeep I love most John Woo flicks, but this one really disappointed me. 3 stars
6/07/02 Kris Bates Masterpiece 5 stars
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  14-Jun-2002 (R)
  DVD: 25-Apr-2006



Directed by
  John Woo

Written by
  John Rice
  Joe Batteer

  Nicolas Cage
  Kevin Cooney
  Noah Emmerich
  Christian Slater
  Peter Stormare
  Adam Beach

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