One of the great paradoxes of warfare is that, as it drives nations apart, it sometimes brings the people of one country together. A case in point: the ways World War II began to break down longstanding social and racial barriers in the segregated United States of the '40s.
John Woo's "Windtalkers" is based on a notable example. It's a blisteringly exciting war movie taken from a little-known piece of history: the fact that the U.S. Army's only really uncrackable code during World War II - and one of the main reasons they were able to beat the Japanese - was derived from the Navajo language and used by a secret group of 29 Navajo soldiers.
The possibilities here are obviously rich; the subject breathes with historical depths and irony, and it seems ripe stuff for a whole generic re-examination of both the American Western and war film genres. But "Windtalkers" doesn't really delve deeply into psychology or American and Navajo culture. It's primarily a full-throttle battle picture, set on Saipan, starring Adam Beach (of "Smoke Signals") as one of the Navajo code specialists and Nicolas Cage as his guardian/handler. And it's packed with the kind of super-intense, ultra-violent fight scenes for which Woo is famous. In this film, they come at us one after another, building up like a gaudy all-out performance of Ravel's "Bolero" that keeps relentlessly drumming and hammering its way to a huge climax.
Cage plays Joe Enders, a natural soldier and perfect Marine who, like Ernest Hemingway's protagonists (such as Jake Barnes, on whom Enders is probably based), suffers a terrible war wound. Grievously injured after receiving a head blow that nearly kills him, Joe is assigned guard duty with one of the Navajo code-talkers, Ben Yahzee (Beach). It's a troubling assignment: Joe has to watch over Ben in battle, but to protect the code, he has to be ready to kill his charge if it looks like he's in danger of capture by the Japanese.
The movie digs into Joe's painfully divided loyalty, and Cage, with his tormented-looking face and faraway eyes, is able to convey that schism and inner hurt - and the fact that the more he gets to know Ben, the more attached (and conflicted) he becomes. Ben's best friend, Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie), has a similar "dark angel" - Christian Slater as the more voluble Pete "Ox" Henderson - and their relationship seems less complex.
But these dangerous friendships are the core of the story, even though there's a typical war-movie ensemble around them, including a big, hearty, unabashedly bigoted infantry mate (Noah Emmerich as Chick), an excitable buddy (Mark Ruffalo as Pappas) and an overemotional leader (Peter Stormare as Hjelmstad). There's even a love interest: shining-eyed Frances O'Connor as the angelic nurse Rita, who tries to crack Joe's stoic exterior.
The writers, John Rice and Joe Batteer, seem to get more of their ideas from other movies than from life, but that's not necessarily bad. Both Ben and Charlie come from Monument Valley, Ariz., with its starkly beautiful and towering spires and mesas - the site of most of John Ford's Westerns and a Navajo tribal homeland. The volatile relationships also suggest, though not too derivatively, Ford films and other war movies by Sam Fuller, Anthony Mann, Robert Aldrich, Oliver Stone - or by Woo himself ("Bullet in the Head").
Woo has always been a great genre director, who, despite his American success with "Face/Off" and "Mission: Impossible 2," has never quite achieved here the richness and resonance of his blazingly intense and exciting Hong Kong action films: "The Killer," "A Better Tomorrow" and "Bullet in the Head."
"Windtalkers" is the first of his U.S. films that really ranks with those earlier movies, that really gives you a sense of deep personal involvement. The prickly friendships between Joe and Ben (and Ox and Charlie) mirror the kind of explosive relationships that were the heart of his Chow Yun-Fat pictures, and they endow the ferocious action, which consumes much of this film's screen time, with an underlying tenderness and edge.
That extreme, nonstop violence will repel some audiences, though - especially anyone made uncomfortable by movies like "Black Hawk Down" or "Saving Private Ryan." Woo could be called, without straining, a "poet of violence," and "Windtalkers" has great, horrific action scenes. But it has more going for it than its action. Like Woo's best Hong Kong thrillers, it's an impassioned exploration of male bonding as well as a dark, pessimistic look at man's capacity for bloodshed. And it's a tribute, albeit a pretty formulaic one, to those unsung Navajo heroes.
The violence - like the bloody carnage in the films of one of Woo's main models, Sam Peckinpah - exhilarates and repulses at the same time, and Woo means it to. He wants to charge you up, but he also wants you to feel flesh pierced and blood running.
Woo wants you to get both the highs and crashing lows of the violence, and though you couldn't call his approach realistic, he does give you a lacerating sense of the terror of war and the vulnerability of soldiers. So does Cage, who gives his role more feeling than it probably deserves.
"Windtalkers," a liberal, anti-racist war movie with ferocious battle scenes, will not please all audiences. It's the best new battle film since "Black Hawk Down," a movie it surpasses in sheer feeling and bravura style, if not in nightmarish panic and suspense. Watching it, as in Peckinpah's movies, you see a ballet of death, graceful and hellish.
3 1/2 stars
Directed by John Woo; written by John Rice, Joe Batteer; photographed by Jeffrey Kimball; edited by Steven Kemper, Jeff Gullo, Tom Rolf; production designed by Holger Gross; music by James Horner; produced by Terence Chang, Tracie Graham, Alison Rosenzweig, Woo. A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures release; opens Friday, June 14. Running time: 2:14. MPAA rating: R (pervasive graphic war violence, and language).
Joe Enders - Nicolas Cage
Ben Yahzee - Adam Beach
Pete "Ox" Henderson - Christian Slater
Hjelmstad - Peter Stormare
Chick - Noah Emmerich
Pappas - Mark Ruffalo Rita - Frances O'Connor
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times