[Screen It]

(2002) (Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach) (R)

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Action/Drama: A Marine is assigned to protect a Navajo radioman and the secret code he uses as their unit tries to take the island of Saipan during WWII.
Joe Enders (NICOLAS CAGE) is a decorated WWII Marine who's troubled by the fact that he was the lone survivor in his unit during a battle on the Solomon Islands. After recuperating in a Hawaiian hospital with the aid of a pretty nurse, Rita (FRANCES O'CONNOR), Joe returns to active duty but still carries the physical and mental scars of his past experiences.

He's then promoted to sergeant and assigned to a special mission where he and others, including Sgt. Pete "Ox" Anderson (CHRISTIAN SLATER), are to protect various Navajo who've been recruited to use their language as code to confuse the Japanese forces. Among them are Ben Yahzee (ADAM BEACH) and Charlie Whitehorse (ROGER WILLIE) from Arizona, who must not only learn how to translate and transmit the code under fire, but must also put up with racist remarks from the likes of Chick (NOAH EMMERICH), a fellow Marine.

Under the command of Gunnery Sergeant Hjelmstad (PETER STORMARE), the Marines, including Pappas (MARK RUFFALO), Harrigan (BRIAN VAN HOLT), Nellie (MARTIN HENDERSON) and others, storm the Japanese island of Saipan, where 30,000 enemy forces are reportedly dug in and prepared to fight to the death to defend their land.

From that point on, the various American forces come under heavy fire and must use every resource - including the secret code transmitted and received by the code talkers - in their effort to take the island.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
In today's world of instant information, multiple camera coverage of nearly every notable event, and even live or at least same day battlefield footage, it's hard to imagine and/or remember a time when such things weren't available. It's even harder to fathom that certain important activities of heavily scrutinized and studied events - such as WWII - went relatively unnoticed until many decades later.

Such is the case with the code talkers, Navajos used by the U.S. in the Pacific campaign to communicate in code that was indecipherable to the Japanese eavesdroppers and translators. They're credited for helping turn the tide of the war and the code is noted as being the only one that remained unbroken during the conflict.

Unlike Nazi Germany's secret code-generating enigma machine - which was featured in recent movies such as "U-571" and "Enigma" - everything about the code talkers remained classified until the 1960s. Even today, few have heard of the operation or those involved with it.

That could change with the release of "Windtalkers," the latest war flick shot before Sept. 11th, rescheduled to be released after it, and one that obviously hopes to capitalize on the patriotic spirit still running through U.S. audiences.

The film obviously has an intriguing tale to tell - particularly since most fact-based WWII stories have previously been told, explored or tapped out. Like many recent war pictures, this one also drops the viewer face-first into the proceedings.

Although not as continuously graphic as "Saving Private Ryan" or relentlessly gripping like "Black Hawk Down," the bullets, explosions, bodies and debris fly and/or fall throughout the film. That shouldn't come as much of a surprise since Hong Kong director John Woo is the mayhem delirious general in charge here.

Known for films such as "The Killer" and "Hard-Boiled" and later the Americanized "Face/Off" and "Mission: Impossible II," Woo loves to shoot - as in film - violence, and thus this effort obviously fits him to a T. Although not as balletic and/or over the top as much of his previous work, Woo nevertheless delivers a tremendous amount of highly stylized war scenes.

In doing so, he can't help but employ his trademark use of slow motion footage in an effort to accentuate the mayhem. The problem is that such a sensationalistic visual style - including the heroes not being hit by enemy fire when they obviously would have been -- clashes with the subject matter at hand.

In "Saving Private Ryan" and "Black Hawk Down," the graphic war realism was used to depict the horrors of war. While there's probably some of that intent here as well, with every subsequent body being blown through the air at slower than normal speeds, the film takes on something of a feeling of TV's old "The A-Team."

Unlike some of his cartoonish works in the past, however, Woo does try to inject some serious drama into the proceedings. Working from a script by John Rice & Joe Batteer ("Blown Away," "Chasers") that's loosely based on real life events of the time, the director gives it a go, but only really manages to recycle standard war buddy flick elements as combined with something of an American Indian slant.

The latter is about the only original or interesting thing the film has to offer, but it's shortchanged in relation to the "white man" narrative thread as well as all of the mayhem. The problem with all of that is that little of what's present engages the viewer in anything but a visceral sense, and even that's limited after one too many slow motion moments. That includes Woo's now laughably trademark shot of slow flying birds, while some footage of WWII era battleships is obviously stock and clashes quite a bit with the rest of the glossy look.

Simply put, the film is just one battle sequence after another with the standard "down time" moments providing the breathers in between (and allowing the clichéd material to flow forth). Of course, such an ebb and flow approach is how other war films play out, but ones like "SPR" did it so much better.

That's not only because the plot was stronger - here we don't know much about the mission other than taking the island and even that's not portrayed that well - but also because the characters were written better and came off as more interesting and engaging than those present here.

Despite one's presumption that the film would be focusing on the Navajo "windtalkers," it's really about the physically and emotionally scarred war veteran character played by Nicolas Cage ("The Family Man," "Gone in Sixty Seconds"). Returning to the WWII arena after 2001's "Captain Corelli's Mandolin," Cage tries quite hard to pull off the troubled character, but unfortunately isn't able to make it work as well as one would like.

More successful - at least in creating a sympathetic character - is Adam Beach ("Joe Dirt," "Smoke Signals") as one of the Navajo code-creating radiomen. Even so, he's isn't given as much to do as I would have liked to have seen beyond standard Indian rituals, standing up to the racist bully, and proving his mettle in combat (which includes a rather far-fetched moment where he's supposed to pass as a Japanese soldier).

Roger Willie (making his debut) has even less to work with as his Navajo friend, while the likes of Christian Slater ("3000 Miles To Graceland," "The Contender"), Noah Emmerich ("Frequency," "The Truman Show") and Mark Ruffalo ("You Can Count on Me," "Committed") are okay, but are mainly present to embody stereotypes and/or shoot or be killed by the enemy. In Slater's case, he's also there to recycle the harmonica playing campfire cliché of war movies and westerns in one of the film's hokier moments. Meanwhile, Frances O'Connor ("Artificial Intelligence: AI," "Beloved") briefly appears as the token female presence.

Simply put, there's not enough story - particularly about the Navajo or the campaign at hand - and instead there's too much repetitious action and slow motion, both of which have Woo's fingerprints all over them. Not as gripping, engaging or exciting as it could and should have been - although at times it manages to exude one or more of those characteristics - "Windtalkers" rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed June 5, 2002 / Posted June 14, 2002

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