As the American infantry begin their assault on Saipan, a pair of US marines, Joe Enders and Ox Anderson, are assigned to protect two Navajo Indians who are trained to disseminate codes. Cue blood and bonding in equal dollops.
On paper, Windtalkers looked so promising. John Woo returns to a war zone for the first time since 1990’s brilliant Bullet In The Head, armed with good actors (see below, plus Peter Stormare, Mark Ruffalo, Frances O’Connor), a fresh set-up (who knew before Windtalkers that Navajo Indians acted as code carriers during World War II?), and enough interesting moral hooks (personal loyalty vs. the good of the mission) to stave off invidious comparisons with Saving Private Ryan and Sitting Bull. The result, however, is a big disappointment.
The problems begin with a script mired in World War II bathos (Slater’s Anderson actually plays a harmonica around the campfire) and then spread to a cast scrambling to dodge the cliché.
Despite resisting his usual OTM (Outlandish Tics Mode), Cage does little to illuminate his GI Joe (here, wincing equals ambivalence), whereas Slater is likeable enough with zilch to do. This leaves Beach and Whitehead to eke some humanity out of stereotypically noble roles.
Yet the battle scenes are the biggest letdowns. While individual moments are satisfyingly gruesome, the lack of new action riffs means that many fight sequences have a samey quality that is quickly wearying. Woo’s bravura, balletic style is at odds with the gritty veracity he is stretching for, and he falls short.
Devotees will spot Woo trademarks: friendship and loyalty caught up in the crossfire, tense standoffs, flapping wing symbolism (although this time butterflies have replaced slo-mo doves). Unfortunately he seems to have lost his touch — that unerring ability to marry big sentiment to the best visceral action imaginable.
The brilliance of Face/Off (let alone The Killer and Hard Boiled) is now beginning to feel a long way away.
The mouthwatering prospect of Woo doing war has belly-flopped into a lacklustre epic which, while fudging its points about morality and loyalty in combat, also renders the spectacle decidedly underwhelming. Lots of action and explosions for the easy-to-please bullet brigade, but what is more lasting is the overriding sense that the director could do so much better.