out of five
: 134 mins
Earlier this year you couldn't move in cinemas without bumping into a war-themed movie of some kind, whether it was the shooty-shooty-bang-bang likes of Black Hawk Down, the blood-spattered 'drama' (with extra added gore!) of We Were Soldiers or the arty tediousness of Charlotte Gray.
In fact, audiences could be forgiven from suffering from a certain amount of war-movie fatigue. With this in mind, the delayed release of Windtalkers has probably done it a few favours and it comfortably emerges as the best of the recent war flicks.
The main thing that Windtalkers has in its favour is a genuinely fascinating historical background. Set in Saipan, 1942, it centres on a pair of Navajo Native Americans (Adam Beach and Roger Willie), who are recruited as Marines and trained to use a secret military code, based on their native language. (This code was, apparently, the only one never to be broken by the Japanese and was considered a crucial factor in winning the war).
Each ‘code talker’ is also assigned an accompanying Marine, with orders to “protect the code at all costs”, i.e. to kill the codetalker if they fall into enemy hands. Unsurprisingly, though the story clearly belongs to the Navajo characters, Hollywood still feels it has to make the American Marines the "real" heroes, meaning that the film focuses on the code talker's bodyguards, played by Nicholas Cage and Christian Slater.
Spot The War Movie Cliché
Unfortunately, what could have been a truly interesting story quickly degenerates into a round of Spot The War Movie Cliché, such as Hero Trying To Overcome Past Trauma (check), Racist Redneck Solider Who Learns Respect (check - Noah Emmerich typecast again), A Sacrifice For The Greater Good (although it's still the film's most shocking moment when it happens) and The Nurse Whose Love Redeems The Hero (or it would, if Frances O'Connor had been given more screen-time).
The acting is pretty good, especially from Beach and Willie. Cage reins in his usual Wild 'n' Crazy act in favour of an attempt at some Serious Acting (he's a borderline alcoholic, see?), though this is devalued somewhat when he starts diving into trenches, guns blazing. Slater is also good (making you wish Hollywood would trust him with more leading roles) and there's good support from the other platoon members.
As for the direction, Woo - as is to be expected - delivers on the action scenes (white doves and opera music thankfully conspicuous by their absence) but it’s strictly gung-ho, Boy’s Own all-action stuff, some of which verges on the ridiculous.
That said, it’s worth watching for its performances and is an enjoyable action-flick in its own right, even if you end up wishing they'd explored the historical background a little further.