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[whitespace] Adam Beach and Nicolas Cage
Photograph by Steven Vaughan

Here's Your Helmet, What's Your Hurry?: Adam Beach (left) hogs the protective headgear in 'Windtalkers' (with Nicolas Cage).

Guns, God and Guts

'Windtalkers' uses the war in the Pacific for entertainment

By Richard von Busack

ON ONE narrow level, Windtalkers might be recommended as the film in which director John Woo has finally got guns big enough to satisfy him. Close to the finale, Woo spins us around the height of Saipan during the final stages of World War II to watch a Japanese crew use a pair of cannons on an approaching column of U.S. Marines. Woo directs this sequence with the gusto of a kid playing soldiers, using all the arms of the Pacific War--flame-throwers, satchel charges, bayonets, samurai swords. The bamboo erupts with Japanese soldiers leaping out; rolling bombardments send stunt men hurling into the sky. Both sides are artistically torn apart for your entertainment.

Apart from the battle scenes, Nicolas Cage adds some gravity to the story, particularly in a drunk scene in a raw battlefield graveyard. With whiskers on his chops, he's starting to look like Humphrey Bogart. He plays a Bogart type, Sgt. Joe Enders, wounded while in the Solomon Islands. His new assignment is to escort Pvt. Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach). Yahzee is one of the Navajos the U.S. Army uses to confuse Japanese intelligence by radioing information in a language that the Imperial Army wouldn't understand. The title, then, is the Navajo term for these radiomen. But this film talks a lot of wind about religion, too; traveling with Yahzee teaches Enders some lessons about coming to terms with his own lapsed Catholic faith.

Cage's Enders has been wounded in the ear; after hearing this dialogue, you may qualify for a Purple Heart yourself. Love letters such as to make any soldier welcome a bullet are narrated by the Nurse He Left Behind, Frances O'Connor. Scriptwriters John Rice and Joe Batteer don't miss a late-night-movie trick, even unto having every character clearly representing some region of the country. Remember The Simpsons' World War II movie parody, where "Ox"--the nickname for a big, burly soldier who turned out to be brainy--is actually short for "Oxford"? Here, Christian Slater's "Ox" is short for Oxnard, his hometown. Mark Ruffalo's Pappas hails from Rhode Island and keeps longing for that diminutive state.

Although Woo loves depicting violence, at least he doesn't seem to approve of it. Compare his approach to Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay's idea of fun in Pearl Harbor, and you'll see that Windtalkers does give full measure to the disgust and fear the Marines face. I wish Woo had followed through by making Yahzee more than just a gentle pixie. Among the many stories of the Native Americans in the war is that of Ira Hayes, the Pima who helped raise the flag on Mt. Suribachi and who died drunk in an alley. But that kind of tale is outside this director's bent for showing you unimaginable carnage and then sopping the conscience with the thought that God is watching us, and all is for the best.

Windtalkers (R; 133 min.), directed by John Woo, written by John Rice and Joe Batteer, photographed by Jeffrey L. Kimball and starring Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach and Christian Slater, opens Friday valleywide.

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From the June 13-19, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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