Windtalkers (2002)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Peter Stormare, Christian Slater, Mark Ruffalo

"Protect the code…"

No one can argue that World War II defined a generation. It was the last war with American involvement that wasn't ravaged by criticism… the enemy was evil, our responsibility was clear, and men were willing to lay down their lives to protect liberty across the globe. Hollywood has honored this period in history with heart wrenching portrayals of the war in masterworks like "Saving Private Ryan", "The Thin Red Line", and, more recently, "Letters From Iwo Jima". As is the case with any extensive conflict, there are literally thousands of true stories that many people have never heard. "Windtalkers", the second, disappointing, American production this century from acclaimed director John Woo, is a story that should be retold in every school in the country. Unfortunately, "Windtalkers" is an intriguing concept that ends up failing to resonate on almost every level as a film.

The title refers to a group of Navajo Indians used extensively during the war to transmit messages in their native tongue. With the Japanese code breakers unable to decipher the meaning of the words, the code was vital to the success of the Allies. The Native American soldiers were treated like expendable commodities by the military and were taken advantage of at every turn. This group of brave men went on to receive virtually no recognition from the government for their contribution and most were unrewarded for their sacrifices. It's a fascinating, shameful piece of history that could genuinely speak to a modern audience in a multitude of ways considering the prominent issues of prejudice and race that still abound today.

Our story centers on two men, Sergeant Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) and Private Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach). Enders is assigned to protect Yahzee, a Navajo soldier charged with delivering coded messages on the battlefield. Unbeknownst to Yahzee, Enders has been instructed to keep the code out of enemy hands at all costs… the U.S. commanders make it clear that the code is more important than the life of the Navajo soldier who carries it. The sergeant is given strict orders to kill Yahzee if he should ever be captured by the enemy.

I enjoyed the over-the-top choreography and art direction in Woo's earlier work, but I've found his American productions to be entirely hit or miss. While I gravitated toward Face/Off and somehow enjoyed Mission Impossible 2 (much to the disdain of almost everyone else on the planet), I loathe many of the other films he has released including "Paycheck", "Broken Arrow", and "Hard Target". I can't place my finger on why… but Woo often fails to innovate when making movies outside of Asia. With "Windtalkers", the reason is much easier to pinpoint. The story of these Navajo soldiers is too tragic and solemn to be handled by someone with a clear comfort zone that relies on slow motion, comic book violence. Woo tries to bring reverence to "Windtalkers", but can't help but allow his famed style to seep onto the screen. What we're left with is a tonally awkward film that never allows its audience to sink into the tragedy and tension of the situation.

Nicolas Cage is passable, if not out of place, and Adam Beach is the best thing about the entire production. Endearing and likeable, he's easily the one character in the movie for which I felt some amount of attachment. The rest of the cast is comprised of cardboard stand-ins that never feel like well rounded people. Instead, they serve the story and die for exposition and plot progression. To make matters worse, soldiers on both sides of the field are launched through the air, skitter across the ground, and shatter into bloody fragments in an operatic ballet that feels stagey and disrespectful. Machine guns are sprayed wildly from the hip and dozens of men fall on the battlefield in an instant. The aftermath of the violence is realistic, but every depiction of a moment of violence is straight out of "Rambo III". It cheapens the impact of the horrors taking place before your eyes and leaves you in a state of apathetic aggravation. "Windtalkers" is ultimately a confused mess that never grows to be more interesting than its plot synopsis.

The DVD edition of "Windtalkers" was already a wonderfully clean transfer so I was curious to see how the film would look on Blu-Ray. Presented in 1080p using the MPEG-2 codec, this disc gives us a beautiful rendition of the movie that looks even better than it did before. Colors are vibrant, depth is impressive, textures are tangible, and there wasn't a hint of artifacting, noise, or dirt on the print. If you have any problems with the visual presentation, it will concern Woo's lingering camera. His goal is to create a discomfort in the viewer, but the contrast levels occasionally feel too out of control for their own good. At the same time, these moments reveal an amazing level of detail; forest floors, scattering rocks, and the thinnest blades of grass bristle and come alive on the screen.

The audio package is mildly impressive, but certainly not the best Blu-Ray has to offer. The DTS lossless track isn't as robust as you'd expect and the soundscape seems to be sleepy, especially for a war film. When all hell breaks loose, your speakers won't be able to contain their excitement, but these moments are rare and feel out of place the entirety of the sound design. The explosions of violence are fuller than the rest of the film and it seems that more time was spent on a few battle scenes rather than on the construction of a complete experience from beginning to end.

Sadly, there are no special features on this release. This is a trend that frustrates me to no end, particuarly when a standard DVD edition is on the shelf, packed with extras. Early Blu-Ray editions seem to be stuck in a trend of movie-only releases and I wonder if this is because the format is so young or because studios are waiting to double-dip with later high definition editions after the so-called format war plays out.

"Windtalkers" is a missed opportunity and you'd do best to rent this release before buying it. Even if you're a giant fan of Nicolas Cage, there isn't enough interesting material for him to heighten this movie beyond its violent roots. Finally, if you're a fan of the film, it'd be smart to wait for a future high def version that also comes with the special features you already have on your standard edition set.