Directed by John Woo, and starring Nicholas Cage Windtalkers follows a shell-shocked Marine US Marine Sergeant (Cage) assigned to escort a Navajo codetalker across the brutal battlefield of Saipan in World War 2’s Pacific theatre. With a budget of $115 million and all the elements of a classic war story it must have looked very impressive on paper, unfortunately Windtalkers is anything but impressive. A clichéd, overblown mess with few redeeming features, it remains one of the largest flops in recent years, and is another stain on Cage’s once Impressive back catalogue.
The first and biggest issue is the script. Serving as a mere vehicle to get characters from A to B it gives the actors very little to work with and the audience little to care about. The few emotional beats in the film are rushed, and scattered unevenly about, making it very hard to care about any of the characters, whose personalities and motivations are barely sketched out.
The script is full of clichéd dialogue about flag, honour and country; it’s lazy, formulaic and very, very Hollywood. The screenwriters evidently are no strangers to the war genre, every single cliché seems to be present: scared rookie? Check, useless commanding officer? Check, haunted protagonist? Double check, consequently there is little tension in the film as it’s so easy to guess what will happen, for such an action packed film it ends being surprisingly boring.
The film is entitled ‘Windtalkers’-the Navajo’s codename for thesmelves, so you’d expect them to be the focus, but there not, this more interesting storyline is side-lined, in favour of Nicolas Cage’s character, the shell-shocked Sgt Joe Enders. It might have worked if the character was believable, but he’s anything but. Nicholas Cage isn’t convincing is a 1940’s marine, he gives a lazy performance, and can’t really shake off his own persona. Enders storyline is so clichéd, and the character described so sketchily it’s a struggle to stay interested (Nicolas Cages himself seems bored at points). Although he does give the T-1000 a run for his money as the most impervious major character in US cinema.
For a middle aged man, suffering from probable post traumatic disorder, with several old wounds to bear in mind, he’s in surprisingly good shape. He charges through ridiculously oversized explosions, and comes out unharmed, kills dozens of Japanese soldiers without having to reload (at one point half a dozen soldiers over 30 feet away with a handgun) semigly stopping the theory that the Japanese were the very vicious and hard wearing soldiers of the Pacific theatre.
Its ‘based’ on true events so you expect some dramatic license, but Cage is simply too old to be convincing he’s in his mid-thirties, most marines were aged in their early 20’s, when they volunteered, and by this stage in the war most of the older officers and NCO’s had become casualties or had been transferred to training units. But he’s not alone, most of the actors are in their late 20’s or above, it makes the film very hard to take seriously, younger, relatively unknown actors would bring less fame and more suitability to the roles.
Not only are the Navajo side-lined the little material they are given to work with is clichéd, and detrimental to the supposed point of the story. They seemingly exist to learn from the white man, or to be saved form the white man. At one point in the film one of them is disguised as a Japanese soldier, not only does he look nothing like them, it’s racist and shouldn’t belong in a modern Hollywood production.
Whilst earlier in the film one of them Ben (Adam Beach) is taking a swim when another marine tries to kill him, only to be saved by Sgt Enders. These two instances make for uncomfortable viewing, they don’t make sense are end up be rather insulting to the audiences intelligence.
At several points in the script attempts are made at bonding the Americans and Navajo, but largely they fall flat, one scene in particular, a remark about how the Japs and Americans will join together in ‘50 years to kick someone else butt’ felt shoehorned into the script, and was almost sickening in its clichéd nature.
The other performances in the film are largely as disappointing as Cage’s, the Navajo aren’t given enough screen time to make any impact. Although Adam Beach who plays Ben (One of the Navajo) would play a similar role in Clint Eastwood’s more recent film Flags Of Our Fathers (2006) with much better results. The cast of supporting soldiers look largely the same so it’s hard to tell who’s who, lumbered with limited screen time and clichéd; underwritten roles in the narrative few of them make an impression. The film does have some good things about it though.
John Woo directs the many action scenes with great energy and skill; they certainly showcase the budget well, providing a small measure of brainless entertainment. The action scenes take up a substantial proportion of the screen time, fans of Woo’s or action films in general will enjoy these scenes, others will find them repetitive, overblown, and even annoying.
The cinematography employed is generally of a high standard as well; whatever its flaws at telling a convincing story this film does look pretty good, with well thought out lighting and camera layouts that showcase some genuinely impressive practical effects (it arguably looks too good to be a war film). Along with its short running time (but even at just over 2 hours it feels overlong), these are essentially the only positives.
An extended home video addition with more action and more problems is also available.
In conclusion this film may entertain those looking for brainless, overblown action, or a couple of hours of good visuals, but for anyone else this will be a disappointment. This film failed at illuminating the story of the Navajo code talkers, its clichéd, lazy writing awful acting, and sheer cheesiness makes a forgotten chapter of history seem a little bit more forgettable.