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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 11/4/02

2002 (2002) - MGM

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Windtalkers Film Rating: C-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/D-

Specs and Features

134 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, full-frame (1.33:1), Amaray keep case packaging, dual-sided, dual-layered (DVD-18 - layer change at 59:35, in chapter 14), teaser trailer, theatrical trailer, soundtrack spot, 3 additional promo trailers (for Die Another Day, Hart's War and The James Bond 007 DVD Collection), animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (32 chapters), languages: English and Spanish (DD 5.1), French (2.0 Surround), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

I was never a huge G.I. Joe fan, even as a kid. What little interest I had was in the 12-inch, brillo-bearded action figure (the beard having pretty much evaporated by the time I turned 9). Even so, a friend of mine is the proud owner of what is easily the coolest G.I. Joe I've ever seen: a limited edition, Talking Navajo Codetalker Joe. Pull the string and one of seven random code phrases comes out. The box is adorned with essays on the use of the Navajo language during World War II. It's a terrific toy, educational and entertaining at the same time. I bring it up because spending two hours playing with Navajo Codetalker Joe would be infinitely more interesting than anything you'll find in John Woo's Windtalkers.

The central action figure here is G.I. Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage... and actually, he's a marine, not a G.I.), a mentally and physically damaged corporal who's surprisingly promoted to sergeant when he's given an unenviable mission. The military has developed a code based on the Navajo language that the enemy is unable to crack. This makes the few codetalkers extremely valuable, so Enders is teamed up with Private Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach). Enders' mission: protect the codetalker and, more importantly, protect the code, no matter what.

What makes Windtalkers such a disappointment isn't that it's a long, drawn-out, cliché-ridden WWII melodrama, chock full of cardboard characters. The art of cinema has survived plenty of those in the past and I'm sure we'll survive plenty more. The disappointment comes from the fact that it didn't have to be. Movies have covered the Second World War from practically every conceivable angle, except this one. The Navajo Code is a little-known fact of history and a genuinely compelling movie could have been made around it. Of course to do this, you'd have to come up with a story that's about... y'know, the Navajo people. Not about some white guy from Pennsylvania who might have to kill the Navajo person unlucky enough to get captured by the Japanese. Cage basically sleepwalks through his role and the rest of the platoon doesn't fare much better. All of the actors are saddled with stilted, wooden dialogue so overly familiar, you'll think the script pages were accidentally shuffled with some '40's screenplays left lying around the MGM offices. Most egregiously wasted is Frances O'Connor in a thankless role as a nurse who cares for the wounded Enders in Hawaii. Their relationship, or lack thereof, goes nowhere slowly and is eventually abandoned altogether.

John Woo, who made a name for himself in Hong Kong with such brilliantly choreographed action movies as The Killer and Hard-Boiled, at first glance seems a natural choice for directing a war epic. And all of Woo's visual trademarks are on display here: slow motion action scenes, tension-filled standoffs with guys pointing guns right in each other's faces, even those damn white birds he's so fond of (not doves or pigeons this time, though - I guess that's progress of a sort). But it doesn't take long to realize that Woo's style is completely at odds with wartime action. Woo's best movies are full of grace, precision and expert timing... not exactly the elements that make up most military campaigns. Battles in wartime are messy and chaotic, with bodies and bullets going every which way. There are a few good scenes in here, including one tense set piece that finds Yahzee disguising himself as a Japanese soldier to infiltrate the enemy camp and steal a radio. But generally, robbed of the opportunity to stage his action as a pas de deux with guns, Woo's battle scenes look utterly generic.

But, if you're a Cage or Woo completist and must watch Windtalkers, MGM's DVD release is the way to go. The dual-sided disc features the 16x9 enhanced, widescreen version of the film on one side and a full-frame version on the flip. Rather than compromise visual quality and squeeze the two-hour-plus movie onto a single layer, MGM has taken the step of releasing Windtalkers as a dual-sided, dual-layered DVD-18 format disc. The resulting image is terrific, with deep blues and true blacks. The footage of Monument Valley under the opening credits looks spectacular.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, as you might expect, is fairly active, with bullets ricocheting around and planes swooping in from overhead. What you might not expect, however, is that it's not particularly immersive and feels a bit artificial at times. Some of those airplane effects coming from the surround speakers are a lot more startling than they should be. The dialogue and James Horner's score are both restricted mainly to the front channels. Considering the movie's budget and look, it's a bit surprising that the audio suffers somewhat.

However, it isn't too surprising that MGM has released Windtalkers as a barebones, movie-only disc. The film's teaser and theatrical trailer represent the big bonuses here, and both of them utilize footage that doesn't appear in the final cut, so they're worth checking out. On the other hand, they're not all that "special" a feature, since Windtalkers has been in the works for so long that it seems like both trailers have turned up on virtually every major MGM release in the last year or so. Check your DVD library. I'll just bet you've already got a DVD with the Windtalkers trailer on it somewhere! The rest of the package is your basic MGM Infomercial: an ad for the Windtalkers soundtrack, a teaser for the upcoming James Bond pic, Die Another Day, and DVD trailers for the recently reissued James Bond box set and Hart's War (another WWII bomb).

Windtalkers isn't exactly an awful movie. I've certainly seen worse John Woo movies. I've seen much worse Nicolas Cage movies. And I've definitely seen much, much worse World War II movies. Windtalkers is just a thuddeningly average movie about a subject matter that deserves a lot more respect. I hope the failure of Windtalkers doesn't dissuade Hollywood from someday making a proper movie about the Navajo Code Talkers. If it does, well... maybe someday I'll make a stop-motion animated short starring Navajo Code Talker Joe.

Adam Jahnke
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