Woo Goes to War in 'Windtalkers'

Finally, inevitably, John Woo has gone to war. Starting with Hong Kong classics like "A Better Tomorrow" and "Hard-Boiled," and continuing into Hollywood extravaganzas "Face/Off" and "Mission: Impossible 2," Woo is his generation's pre-eminent orchestrator of violence, someone who truly loves the smell of napalm in the morning.

So his attraction to the astronomical bullet and body count of World War II was only a matter of time. The resulting "Windtalkers," however, is not all it might have been, an oddly old-fashioned film from a director who's usually anything but. In "Windtalkers," Woo takes off from one of the great true stories of that conflict: how the impenetrability and difficulty of the unwritten Navajo language turned it into a Pacific theater combat code that Japan was unable to break. That secret was so valuable that, at least according to the John Rice & Joe Batteer script, the Marines assigned the talkers (all but one of whom were Navajos in real life) bodyguards instructed to "protect the code at all costs," which meant killing the talker if capture was imminent.

"Windtalkers" star Nicolas Cage plays a Marine faced with that assignment and, eventually, with that moral challenge as well. Woo approached the filming of the "Windtalkers" combat scenes (with the Hawaiian island of Oahu and parts of Southern California standing in for Saipan and the Solomon Islands) with his usual gusto. The first shot of the Saipan campaign alone, for instance, utilized 280 explosions and 700 extras, and Woo and cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball at times used as many as 14 cameras to capture the action.

But although the director remains both an enviable stylizer of balletic violence and a fine creator of mythic sequences like the film's opening journey through a misty Monument Valley, "Windtalkers" does not make the kind of visceral impression previous Woo films have almost taken for granted.

"Windtalkers" feels behind the curve visually -- and that's the last thing you'd expect to say about a filmmaker with Woo's bulletproof panache.

After what we've seen recently in "We Were Soldiers" and especially "Black Hawk Down," these battle scenes seem a tad formulaic, as does the film's story. Initially, "Windtalkers" follows two narrative threads. We see a pair of young Navajos, Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach of "Smoke Signals") and Charlie Whitehorse (the debuting Roger Willie, the film's only featured Navajo) as they learn to talk the code talk.

We also spend quality time, such as it is, with a stoic, sullen Marine named Joe Enders (Cage). Enders wasn't always that grumpy, but after a firefight in the Solomons that killed 15 of his buddies and left him with hearing and balance problems and an ear that looks like Mike Tyson has taken a crack at it, Enders is tormented by his part in all of those deaths.

With the help of sympathetic nurse Rita (Frances O'Connor), Enders gets another combat assignment, and is chagrined to learn it's to be the guardian-assassin of Yahzee. Another Marine, Ox Henderson (Christian Slater), gets the same job for Whitehorse, and although Enders knows neither he nor Ox should get too friendly with their charges, the closeness of combat makes that inevitable.

It has no shortage of violent situations, but "Windtalkers" also seems to have its eye on being thoughtful and character-driven, but Woo doesn't have the best touch for this, and Rice-Batteer's standard-issue war movie script isn't any help.

Throwing in everything except someone pulling the pin from a grenade with his teeth, "Windtalkers" seems to have ransacked every old World War II movie for overly familiar material. There's the guy who plays the harmonica, the guy who gives the "if anything should happen to me" speech, even the bigoted guy who sees the error of his ways once a Navajo saves his life. When it comes to learning experiences, it's hard to beat a really good war.

Although most Woo movies have made violent action almost exhilarating, the level of bloodshed in "Windtalkers" has the opposite effect. With a body count rising to computer-game levels, these combat sequences are more numbing than exciting, an exhausting display of purposeless firepower. Even Woo, it seems, can fall victim to carnage overkill.