Rated R - Running Time: 2:13 - Released 6/14/02

In Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Nicolas Cage played an Italian guy in World War II. He's at it again, except this time he's switched sides. In John Woo's Windtalkers, a story about the Native Americans whose language was the basis for an unbreakable code used in combat radio transmissions, Cage plays Italian-American Marine Sgt. Joe Enders, who is assigned to guard and protect one of these Navajo radio men. Director Woo, who made movies in his native China for nearly 30 years before breaking into American films, has a long-standing reputation for action-packed thrillers—his occidental entries include Broken Arrow, Face/Off, and Mission: Impossible II—and he certainly does not stray from his established style with this one. Windtalkers, while nicely filmed and ostensibly about race relations and the difficulty of following orders, is as brutal as they come, with a near-oversaturation of violent war footage, suffering, and death. While some may have used this fascinating subject matter to craft a serious drama with historical significance, Woo and his writers, John Rice and Joe Batteer, choose instead to stay with the high-octane action format.

The film begins on the Solomon Islands during a brutal 1943 battle against the Japanese, where Enders suffers the loss of his entire group, not to mention his equilibrium and the hearing in his left ear, thanks to a grenade that explodes at close range. Although he is not fit for return to combat, he enlists the help of a comely young nurse (Frances O'Connor) to help him fake his way back into action. His next assignment is to play bodyguard to newly-enlisted Pvt. Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach, Smoke Signals), with the coldly mercinary understanding that if Yahzee is ever in danger of being taken captive by the enemy, Enders is to execute him rather than risk having him divulge the secrets of the Navajo code language. "Your mission is to protect the code," his commanding officer tells him. While Yahzee and his Indian friend, Pvt. Charles Whitehorse (Navajo American and Gulf War veteran Roger Willie in his acting debut) are blissfully unaware of their superiors' deadly orders, Enders and fellow sergeant Peter 'Ox' Henderson (Christian Slater), who is assigned as Whitehorse's guardian, discuss whether or not they could fulfill these orders if it ever became necessary. That is to say, Henderson talks and Enders rudely ignores him, as he does everyone in the movie, apparently suffering from the sort of "battle fatigue" that makes you rudely ignore everyone.

After this introductory period, the group is assigned to serve on Saipan, where they encounter 30,000 Japanese soldiers who have no intention of letting the island be taken, and the gruesome and deafening violence of the situation is played out in the most graphic terms, with soldiers being shot, burned, blown up, and/or decapitated, while doing the same to the Japanese. Meanwhile, Yahzee and Whitehorse endure the racial prejudice of some of the other men, like one particularly annoying corporal (Noah Emmerich), while Enders pops pills to counteract his vertigo and hears the voices of his fallen men echoing in his melted ear. And sure enough, there eventually, inevitably comes the time when the Indians are likely to be taken prisoner. What to do, what to do.

This is certainly an exciting movie; director Woo has little trouble executing the reality of the horror and racheting up the tension. I wish there had been more time spent on the Navajo code and less on graphic violence, and Cage's characterization was more annoying than sympathetic to me. But what are you gonna do—it's blockbuster season. ****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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