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Windtalkers (2002)


Action is John Woo’s middle name. After directing frenetic flicks such as Mission: Impossible II, Face/Off, and Broken Arrow, I knew we would get enough bombs, blood and broken body parts to give his WWII drama Windtalkers an accurate feel. But the film is about more than good gore; it has tremendous heart, too.

During the war, the Japanese were masters at stealing and translating the codes used by U.S. troops to communicate messages to and from the front lines. There was a huge loss of life as a result of these interceptions. In response, the Marines recruited Navajos to act as code talkers, and used their intricate tribal language as a new, unbreakable code. Woo’s Windtalkers is an intense and emotional look at the critical role the Navajos played in the United States’ success in the war.

In Windtalkers, Woo has re-teamed with the stars from several of the aforementioned films. Nicolas Cage (Face/Off) is Sergeant Joe Enders, a man with very few things in life outside of his ability to lead troops into battle. Enders is haunted by a nagging guilt from the death of prior platoon members at the hands of an earlier Japanese ambush. After recovering from his resulting injuries, Enders is selected to team with Sergeant Peter Anderson (Christian Slater of Broken Arrow) to lead a new squadron of men and protect the Navajo code talkers assigned to them.

At first, the two code talkers, Private Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach) and Private Charles Whitehorse (Roger Willie) are mocked and shunned by their fellow comrades. Even Enders and Anderson cannot shed their preconceptions. But Yahzee explains that he too is fighting for the same country, land, and people as the other Marines. As the men meander through the jungles of Saipan, and witness how the code talking is saving their lives, the troops begin to appreciate Yahzee and Whitehorse for their patriotism, honor, and family values.

War is not just about battle, it’s also about the emotional toll it takes on those involved. Woo successfully integrates the intense war sequences with the slower, more personal and emotional moments where we see the human side of the Marines on the front lines. Woo takes considerable time to explore the homeland traditions of the Navajo Marines as they uphold their traditions of prayer, warrior protection, and honoring of the dead. Bonds are formed between Enders and Yahzee as they talk about the importance of family, while Anderson and Whitehorse bring together their worlds by playing music.

Windtalkers features plenty of non-stop action customary of Woo’s style. The highly tense war scenes show every body part imaginable getting blown up, sliced off, or burnt to a crisp. The grotesque realism is difficult to watch at some points, but it represents some of the best battle depictions in recent cinema. It will definitely quench anyone’s appetite for extreme action, especially during one of the best scenes in the film, when Enders and Yahzee go behind enemy lines to take control of a Japanese communications camp.

Cage turns in his finest and most courageous performance since his masterful work as a down-on-his-luck drunk in Leaving Las Vegas. Beach comes of age as he progresses from a naïve outsider to a toughened war hero who never loses sight of the importance of his family or tribal traditions. They are backed by strong supporting performances by Willie, Slater, and Frances O’Connor as a nurse who helps Enders recover from his early injuries. Through a series of letters, she gives life to the war-hardened sergeant and represents his only ‘family’ aside from the front lines.

Windtalkers captures the spirit of the Navajo Marines and the vitally important role they played in saving the lives of many Marines who helped the United States win key battles in WWII. It took them fifty years to receive their well-deserved recognition and now, with Windtalkers, there is a film that is a true testament to their courage under fire.

John Woo’s director’s cut takes center stage in the three-disc Special Director’s Edition DVD release of Windtalkers. Here, Woo turns in a 2 1/2 hour cut, adding about 15 minutes of material into the original. The two extra discs are a bit perplexing: Each contains maybe half an hour of extra material (multi-angle scene featurettes, archival material on the Navajos on WWII, and behind-the-scenes footage) which could easily have been put on a single DVD (and mercifully spared us the disc swapping). Oddly enough, most of this stuff is indeed available on the single-disc Director’s Cut version of the film, newly available.

That’s not wind. It’s Nicolas Cage.