Original Title: Windtalkers
Year of Release: 2002
Genres: War; Action; Historical Drama
Director: John Woo
Writers: John Rice, Joe Batteer
Main Cast: Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Christian Slater, Roger Willie, Mark Ruffalo, Noah Emmerich, Peter Stormare
On paper, a Hollywood-produced World War II epic directed by John Woo should not work, and at first it actually didn’t: being released after a slew of WWII films inspired by Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and after the tragedy of 9/11, the film received negative reception and failed at being a box office success. This is too bad, because Windtalkers is actually a really great war film.
Set during the Pacific War between US and Japanese troops, the story follows the Marine Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage), who is assigned to protect a “windtalker”: one of several Navajo Indians who were used to relay messages during World War II because their spoken language was indecipherable to Japanese code breakers. This is an aspect that is rarely touched upon when talking about this war, and it makes for a refreshing spin on the genre.
What truly sets this film apart is the direction: John Woo brings his unique style here for some of the most impressive war set-pieces I have seen. The camera is constantly moving throughout the battlefield, with long shots of people shooting and stabbing each other until it becomes impossible to distinguish friend from foe. The action is relentless, with each killing taking a toll on the soldiers that we are following. The violence here manages to be both spectacular (as in, crafting a spectacle) and horrific without feeling gratuitous: the courage and loss of the men who fight this war is strongly felt, but it doesn’t portray these people as patriots who do this because they love violence or glory. The horrors of war are on full display here, as is the trauma of PTSD, friendly-fire, and especially the distrust in authority and loss of humanity. To what point is it right to follow orders, even if doing so means losing your humanity?
The character drama here is especially effective, albeit nothing new. The cast is full of recognizable faces, from great lead performances by Nicolas Cage and Adam Beach, to memorable supporting roles by Christian Slater and Roger Willie. The relationship between the latter is what truly kept me engaged: how they form a bond over their different cultural heritages and music is charming and emotional. The sound design is terrific, with each weapon having its appropriate sound and crafting a sense of terror that the mere sound of a bullet flying will make you jump. The soundtrack by the late James Horner is also quite good, not being overused, but rather employed at the right times to amplify the drama on-screen.
Overall, Windtalkers is easily Woo’s second best Hollywood production right after Face/Off. The battle sequences are arresting, the acting solid, the sound terrific, and the emotions strong. One of those films that will hopefully be appreciated more as time goes on.
Visual Effects: 9
Violence & Gore: 9
Sex & Nudity: 3
Drugs & Profanity: 3
Intensity & Horror: 7