There are few experiences more frustrating than watching a great director make a film that is so riddled with mediocrity from the outset that one wonders why on earth he or she was ever blackmailed into signing the Faustian pact that saw them calling ‘Action!’ over the profoundly unexciting remains of the desperately generic mess that they have somehow allowed their name to be associated with. John Woo’s American films have commonly been accepted as being disappointing, at least in comparison to his stunning Hong Kong work; however, Face/Off is a towering achievement by any standards, and Broken Arrow and Mission Impossible 2 both have enough moments of pop-operatic splendour to show that Woo’s undeniable talent, although misapplied, has not waned. However, Hard Target was a mediocre waste of time, and Windtalkers resembles nothing so much as that film, ending up as little more than a tiresomely overblown and completely unengaging exercise in empty carnage.
The story pretends to be about the potentially fascinating story of the Navajo Indians, whose language was used as code in the Second World War, and, by the same token, appears at first to focus on Ben Yahzee (Beach), a young Navajo who is recruited into the army to act as one of these so-called ‘Windtalkers’, and his friend Charles Whitehorse (Willie). Unfortunately, we are soon treated to the spectacle of Nicolas Cage as Sgt Joe Enders looking very, very upset and angry indeed, while men die all around him screaming abuse, and thus we know that this will be yet another Generic Hollywood War Film, featuring such well-worn stereotypes as the racist soldier who learns tolerance (Emmerich, who has a malevolent gleam in his eye while shouting racist abuse which really disturbs), the pipe-smoking commanding officer (Stormare, playing his role as if the film was a kind of comedy, as it occasionally appears to be), the smart-talking ethnic soldier (Ruffalo, in this case playing a Greek, for some unfathomable reason), a young man who puts himself on the list of dead by wistfully saying ‘I’m looking forward to going home to my wife and baby’, and, unsurprisingly, lots and lots of violence, all of which is almost entirely lacking in Woo’s usual panache.
The frustrating thing about the film is that it’s easy to see what it could have been, had Woo been allowed to direct it in a far more epic and operatic way, along the lines of Bullet in the Head or even- dare one say it- The Killer; the complete absence of his usual trademark mass stand-offs, doves, two-handed gunplay and operatically overblown villains are understandable, but the lazily half-hearted examination of his usual themes of trust, honour and friendship is massively disappointing, with the lack of any conviction in their execution constantly letting the film down. For a director whose work is typified by charismatic, heroic central characters, Enders is a frustrating blank throughout; it’s obvious that the screenwriters were asked at some point to make him a man sickened by war, and duly did so, but forgot to make him any more interesting as a character. Likewise, Yahzee is so sidelined by the film into the stereotypical role of ‘Native American sidekick’ that, by the time that the potentially more interesting issues of character conflict finally arise, it’s very hard to care about his eventual fate.
Yet all this might be forgiven if the film was at least exciting or interesting. Unfortunately, Woo’s handling of the battle scenes leaves a vast amount to be desired; he attempts a kind of compromise between the extreme realism of Saving Private Ryan and the cartoonish shoot-em-up ethos of Pearl Harbor, and ends up with some confusing and rather dull battle scenes in which stuntmen fly through the air (in slow motion, naturally) or are slowly riddled with bullets, while the lead actors adopt expressions of misery before shooting another hundred Japanese or so. The film also has some stunningly awful stock footage of Navy battleships early on that looks like something out of the work of Ed Wood, and is a clear indication that MGM, who made the film, really weren’t concerned about cutting costs in order to get the film made; it comes as little surprise that the film has been a substantial flop in America, unlike Face/Off and Mission Impossible 2, both of which were far more typically ‘John Woo’ films. Certainly, it’s good to see a director attempt to diversify, but this isn’t diversification, it’s a half-hearted attempt at tackling material that has been better made before, especially in Terrence Malick’s extraordinary The Thin Red Line.
The film isn’t a complete dead loss; there are brief flashes of excitement here and there, and, when the film finally moves into the realms of the tragic at the end, it becomes a good deal more engaging than before, although with the constant feeling that punches have been pulled. The performances are all one-dimensional, with Cage’s apparent disinterest in his character shining through in all his scenes; the only bright spot is a brief cameo by Jason Isaacs early on as the man who assigns Enders to his mission. Actually, there’s another entertaining moment late in the film involving Christian Slater, a Japanese soldier and a large sword, but that’s a fleeting compensation in store for those of you who want to endure a crushing disappointment from one of the great directors working today.