I’m a great admirer of John Woo. Movies like Broken Arrow (1996) and Face/Off (1997) showcased this director’s unique brand of ‘beautiful violence’, in which a combination of furious editing and dramatic slow-motion breathed new life into the action/thriller genre. Although much criticised for its lack of substance, I was utterly entranced with Mission: Impossible 2 as well: here Woo was totally in his element, imbuing the many fight scenes with a balletic kind of energy that gave them a sense of almost elemental power. Coupled with dynamic editing, audacious manipulation of time and space, and a throbbing rock soundtrack, it has to be one of my favourite films. It may be all style and no content - but, heck, what style!
So I was looking forward to catching up with Windtalkers (2002), a film I’d never got round to watching at the cinema. With Face/Off’s Nicholas Cage and Broken Arrow’s Christian Slater, I was hoping for a thrilling combination of what made those films so good. Could they repeat the magic? Er, well, no. Windtalkers is, to put it mildly, a crushing disappointment. Many times during the commentary, Cage proclaims, “You can tell this is a John Woo film”, but to be honest the only way you’d know this is to look at the cover of the DVD. Love him or loathe him, Woo has a unique directorial style - but this film could have been made by anybody. It’s bland, generic, formulaic, overlong and utterly without point or purpose. Clearly derivative of a host of gung-ho WWII action flicks, especially Saving Private Ryan (1998), there is nothing about the film that moves the genre on or provides new insights into it.
Ostensibly the story of shell-shocked US marine Joe Enders (Cage) and his companion Ox Anderson (Slater) who are assigned to protect two Navajo Indian ‘code talkers’ (Adam Beach and Roger Willie) during the Battle of Saipan, Windtalkers lurches from one battle sequence to another with barely a hint of storyline or character development. The idea of the Navajo language being used as an uncrackable code against the Japanese would indeed make a fascinating film - but sadly this isn’t it. Windtalkers is really nothing more than an excuse for endless war scenes and cliché-ridden depictions of army life. The Navajo lifestyle is overly romanticised, relationships between the marines are sketchy and formulaic and there isn’t really any kind of emotional heart to the film. The main problem is that Woo seems completely out of his depth when dealing with the complexity of real warfare. More at home choreographing one-on-one fight scenes, his handling of large-scale battles leaves much to be desired. True, there are explosions, tanks, guns, bodies flying left, right and centre, but in some unfathomable way the individual shots seem very stagy. It doesn’t help that the film’s first combat sequence features the worst dismemberment effect I’ve ever seen (and I’ve sat through a ton of Hammer films, so that’s a pretty savage criticism). Peter Jackson managed such effects on a shoestring budget for his sublime gore-fest Braindead (1992), so why Woo can’t manage a simple effect like this is beyond me. There is also no sense of the confusion and fear that a real battle would engender - the actors seem to be just hitting their marks and going through their pre-planned moves, while the camerawork and editing lack the necessary fluidity to mask these flaws. And while on the subject of cinematography, I found many of these scenes garish and overlit, with none of the subtle digital regrading that helped create the intense combat atmosphere of Saving Private Ryan (sorry to come back to this film again, but as Woo seems intent on aping its style, I feel comparisons are wholly justified.)
Onto the acting. Adam Beach is excellent as the Navajo who befriends Cage, while his compatriot Roger Willie lends sobriety to an underwritten part. Cage gives a performance verging on the cataleptic and is totally unbelievable as a battle-weary leader of men. A cryptic actor at the best of times, he exhibits none of the authority you would expect in such a position, although to give him his due, there is nothing in the part to get his teeth into - like all the characters in this film, it is pure cardboard. Christian Slater gives a workmanlike performance, while Noah Emmerich as the token racist Chick stands out marginally from the faceless pack of marines. Frances O’Connor (A.I.) makes the most of her limited screen time, but only seems to be there to add a touch of femininity to the otherwise all male line-up.
Despite the drawbacks of the film, the DVD transfer itself is spectacular. As you would expect with such a recent work, there is not a sign of dirt or sparkle to be seen. Everything is crisp and sharp, with colours strong and well defined. The Hawaii locations are breathtaking and the staggering rock pillars of Monument Valley have never looked better. Also on the positive side, the 5.1 soundtrack is phenomenal - but then that’s only to be expected when you copy Saving Private Ryan’s sound design so assiduously. Machine gun fire, rifle shots and explosions bombard you from every speaker. This goes some way towards making up for the deficiencies in directing, but it definitely doesn’t draw the viewer in the way that Spielberg’s wartime masterpiece did. Unfortunately James Horner’s musical score is his worst for years. It is the ultimate in generic action music and contains nothing in the way of memorable themes (although echoes of previous scores do emerge, notably from 1984’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock). Its use is often unnecessary, with the overly bombastic overtones trivialising any attempt to paint a realistic depiction of combat. More Indiana Jones than Full Metal Jacket, it creaks and groans when it should be heightening the pace.
As to the extras, there is a limited, but fairly engaging, selection. First is a Bravo special about the making of the film (11:25), presented in subtitled non-anamorphic 14:9 and sandwiched between the beginning and end of an extended theatre trailer (the only one on the disc). The usual gravel-voiced narration describes how wonderful the film is, while Cage offers the insightful comment that they used WWII uniform and equipment to add realism. Well, blow me down, I’d never have thought of that. A second documentary (15:06), presented in subtitled 4:3, follows the gruelling process of training the actors in a real boot camp environment. Shot on high-quality digital video (as are all the extras here), it’s a suprisingly well-made piece with some effective split-screen montages. I now know that MRE stands for ‘meal ready eat’ and I feel all the better for it. Four 14:9 non-anamorphic Fly on the Set Diaries complete the set: these are admirably concise snippets concerning key action scenes - ‘Marine March on Saipan’ (8:55), ‘Bazooka’ (4:32), ‘Friendly Fire’ (6:40) and ‘Village Ambush’ (3:28) - and provide a taste of what it must have been like preparing for such complex sequences. The first, and longest, diary entry is the most revealing. Here Woo says that he’d rather not use CGI effects if he can (something I’m in full agreement with) and then we’re shown how 13 cameras captured most of the Saipan scenes in one long take. (This might have something to do with the blandness of the war scenes - it’s hard to make your mark when so much is out of your control.)
There are two commentaries, both uninspiring. Nicolas Cage and Christian Slater indulge in an embarrassing display of mutual backslapping (“I’ve always liked your work,” gushes Cage) and the conversation is littered with such comments as, “This is cool!”, “Unbelievable!”, “Heavy!” and (a particularly memorable one this), “Gigantoid!”. Cage offers the thrillingly original homily, “War is insane”, citing the fact that John Woo’s desire was to put people off the idea of war. Put people off seeing films like this, more like. The second commentary by Roger Willie and real-life Navajo code talker Albert Smith is worthy but brain-achingly ponderous. Rarely do they allow their introspections to coincide with the action on screen. Incidentally, both of these tracks are subtitled to a meticulous degree, including every ‘um’, ‘er’ and half-finished sentence. A Czech language track proves mildly diverting, if only for the credits being read out at the end by the sonorous Czech announcer. The main menu is animated, as are the menu transitions, but the scene selection clips are hard to tell apart and don’t come with captions, so sometimes it’s a matter of guesswork as to which scene is which. (But then one war scene is very much like another, certainly in this film.)
Windtalkers is a grave disappointment from a director who should have done better. The film doesn’t ‘say’ anything, nor is it a slick action movie. There is little style in the direction or editing, other than that which is borrowed from other more talented sources (Peckinpah’s slow-mo deaths, Francis Ford Coppola’s mammoth battle landscapes etc). The quality of the DVD is excellent - pity about the film itself. If you like John Woo, Nicholas Cage or WWII movies, steer well clear.