Woo directs the hell out of a subpar script
As a certified John Woo fanatic, this Ultimate Edition Blu-ray release of Windtalkers from the MVD Marquee Collection featuring 2 different cuts of the film, 3 different audio commentary tracks, and loads of bonus features was destination viewing for me. Having not revisited the film since its 2002 theatrical release, my feeling was that it couldn’t possibly be as bad as filmdom seems to have condemned it to being. I remembered liking it, myself. I felt fairly confident that I’d rediscover a lot to like in Windtalkers.
And I did! There is a lot to like in Windtalkers, and John Woo’s direction is right at the top of that list. Woo’s trademark “heroic bloodshed” style of action choreography results in some truly harrowing combat sequences that feel somewhat novel in just how “Woo-ey” they are, even though we’re definitely in the trenches with the United States fighting forces during World War II. It’s occasionally jarring, but gives off that Woo energy like no one else can. The director’s cut seems to have focused almost entirely on re-inserting combat set pieces, which results in a 153 minute cut of the film.
Also easy to enjoy in Windtalkers is the cast. Adam Beach has never gotten his due in Hollywood. He’s a charming and handsome Native actor who, despite becoming one of his generation’s most prominent Native actors, has never crossed over into the mainstream quite as much as he really should have. Hopefully by the end of his career he’ll rank among the Wes Studis and Graham Greenes of the world, but Beach had the potential to break out far beyond exclusively Native roles (and maybe he still will). Regardless, Windtalkers was one of his biggest Hollywood leading roles, and he’s quite a green and idealistic young man to follow into battle. Of course, Beach takes a real back seat to one Nicolas Cage, whom I love dearly and who performs quite adequately here. Cage’s Joe Enders is physically and emotionally damaged by the experience of losing many of his men in combat. But he’s thrown back into service none the less when he’s conscripted to protect the “uncracked by the Japanese” Navajo code language at all costs, meaning it’s his job to ensure that Beach’s Ben Yahzee never falls into enemy hands… meaning the code is more important than Yahzee’s life.
Beach and Cage take the lead, but much like Saving Private Ryan, there’s a massive “who’s who” of supporting cast here, all given plenty of screen time in this director’s cut, if still not particularly memorably. In the trenches with our guys we’ve got Mark Ruffalo, Martin Henderson, Noah Emmerich, and even Christian Slater re-teaming with Woo after Broken Arrow and playing a pretty significant back-up lead. Also in brief roles are Jason Isaacs, Peter Stormare, and Frances O’Connor. It’s worth mentioning all these actors and the great direction from Woo because the film’s strengths begin to falter after these merits.
Honestly, the big culprit in making Windtalkers a largely unmemorable and unimpactful experience is the screenplay from John Rice and Joe Batteer (Blown Away). Windtalkers starts out really well with all the pieces in place for an early 2000s Hollywood war epic, and you expect it to deliver some powerful messages, tap into a fascinating element of WWII in the Navajo code, and tow the “war is hell” line. Sadly, the script largely squanders all of that and relegates most everyone but Cage’s character into the background. It could have worked to do a thorough and incisive exploration of the Navajo people and their role in the winning of WWII through just two main leads, but the script doesn’t really do the work needed to make their journey’s compelling. This is never more clearly understood than in the film’s finale, where the movie just kind of ends when Cage’s arc concludes and it’s made clear that Yahzee was truly second fiddle in this story ostensibly about him!
All the blame can’t be laid at the screenwriters’ feet however. For as good as John Woo’s direction is, and for as much as I love his “heroic bloodshed” aesthetic, Windtalkers simply feels like a mismatch for his trademark style. It’s not that Woo can’t do war films. His two part Red Cliff epic is a stunning and grand vision that reminded the world of Woo’s mastery of the medium. There’s just something about Woo’s theatrics paired against the most massive war this planet has ever known that doesn’t quite gel. It’s a great director doing what he does best but ultimately not really doing justice to the Navajo code talkers story. I wish this story of the heroism of the Navajo had a better movie to represent itself to the world than Windtalkers.
To be clear, Windtalkers is fine. The director’s cut shows that Woo does war just like the best of them with relentless and thrilling battles and skirmishes throughout. It’s just that the central narrative of Enders and Yahzee never compels us in the way a three hour epic must. It’s quite possible that the theatrical cut works better, and maybe some of those commentary tracks would enlighten us further as to the intents and variations between the different cuts, but despite this incredibly stacked home video release, a few bonus features and a three hour film were all I could commit to in my Windtalkers revisit.
And I’m Out.