WINDTALKERS blew hot air and stale cliches into what should have been a good WW2 story, then further undermined itself with a regiment’s worth of over-directed action scenes. There are a couple of good epic-scale shots, with some enhancing CGI, and a decent performance from Nicholas Cage, but otherwise the expensive 2002 actioner is a bloody, frustrating dud.
1944. The Marine Corps deploys Navajo recruits as radiomen to confuse the Japanese during battle action by using their tribal language as code messaging instead of English. Barely recovered from wounds and trauma in the Solomon Islands, hard-bitten veteran ‘Sgt. Joe Enders’ (Cage) is assigned to protect genial code-talker ‘Pvt. Ben Yahzee’ (Adam Beach); protect him but also if need be kill him if he’s captured by the enemy, who will torture the code out of him. Their unit is sent into the combat cauldron that was the Battle of Saipan.*
When it starts, with some lovely aerial photography of Monument Valley (Navajo country), backed by James Horner’s pensive score, it looks promising, and the first sequence of full-scale attack on Saipan—filmed at the lush Kualoa Ranch on Oahu, Hawaii—is mostly pretty impressive. But the script, by Joe Batteer and John Rice, is awash from one end to the other in hackneyed stereotypes and the direction from much–ballyhooed action expert John Woo goes absurdly overboard with stunts more suited to a Hong Kong crime saga than a purportedly realistic combat picture: there is enough slo-motion death and balletic choreography for five movies. Woo crowds his troops together so closely they’d all be dead in two minutes. It’s appropriately furious and gory—as was the awful battle—but it reeks of cinematic show-off style. It looks staged, and for all the violent movement, fire, explosions and blood, it’s boring rather than exciting, let alone gripping, moving or true.
Cage is fine, essaying the haunted sergeant, and the likable Beach is okay, but the rest of the supporting cast flounder in badly written parts. Christian Slater, Noah Emmerich, Mark Ruffalo are poorly used, their characters are so obvious and cheesy if feels like they were parachuted in from another era—ours— and familiar weird Swedish bad guy Peter Stormare is flat wrong: a tone deaf casting goof.
Reviews were mediocre at best, and it was a major money-loser, making only $77,628,000 (#53 in the ’02 lineup) against a production cost of $115,000,000. 134 minutes that might fool those who’ve never seen good movies and/or know little or nothing about the hell of WW2 in the Pacific. With Roger Willie (sweet Navajo pal who might as well carry a sign saying “I will get killed later”), Frances O’Connor (cardboard, unfelt addition as a nurse who tends to Cage back in Hawaii), and Jason Isaacs.
* On the site ‘Careers After Military’, it even made the list of the “10 Most Inaccurate Military Movies Ever Made”. The others on the dishonor role were U-571, The Hurt Locker, The Green Berets, The Patriot, Enemy At The Gates, Pearl Harbor, Jarhead, Flyboys, Red Tails and Battle Of The Bulge. Limiting it to ten is being kind.
As for the desperate and costly Battle for Saipan, it’s been portrayed in the glossy 1955 hit Battle Cry, which soft-sold it per that era; in the tough 1960 Hell To Eternity, a biopic of outstanding Marine Guy Gabaldon, with Jeffrey Hunter doing well; and the also fact-based Japanese-made Oba: The Last Samurai/Battle Of The Pacific, which achieved some success in 2011. Saipan’s slaughterhouse capture took place the same month as Normandy’s D-Day, and has been overlooked in comparison. Aside from showing a lot of soldiers being killed, Windtalkers muffed it: in botching the realism, in surface coverage of the Navajos—kind of the idea for the story, and in conveying any sense of how big of a loss the island was for Japan.