Over the Christmas holidays I visited my Mother and after the enjoyable re-watching of some war classics recently I was all hopped up on movie war. I had taken some DVDs with me in the hopes that Mum would be into them, and I could get to watch some favourites on her massive telly. But she wasn’t. Even with In Bruges, which is a cracker and, what I thought was a sure fire hit. She didn’t want to watch that.
So she showed me Windtalkers instead.
Firstly, I love John Woo movies. He has made some truly interesting pieces of cinematic action over the years, and as obvious as it is, Face/Off is probably my all time favourite of his output. He has a way of shooting an action scene that fills it with a visceral beauty that requires you to not blink in case you miss one well placed frame of squee inducing violence. His movies are pure popcorn cinema with heart and with guts. And this was one colossal misstep.
The movie follows the true events that surrounded the Navajo code used by the US Military in the second world war. Nicholas Cage’s disaffected war “hero” in placed in charge of one such Navajo code operative with the explicit instruction to protect the code at all cost. Christian Slater is cast in a similar but altogether more sunny role as a chipper Navajo protector. Cage also has an inexplicable love interest who exists mostly in voice over, and serves no real purpose to the plot or events on screen. I haven’t done any research into how close the events or characters of the movie sit to the real story of the code, but if I had to guess (and I do), I would say some of the names are real and some of the plot points correspond with history, while the rest exists in pure fantasy.
The film essentially steals its formula from a romantic comedy: In the beginning, our plucky hero meets the Navajo and doesn’t like him. After a few meetings, he realises that he does indeed get on with him, and things are good for a while. Then his Navajo pal discovers something about him that causes them to split up, and bring an element of dramatic unrest to proceedings. But they make up in the end, and win the war (and their hearts).
Along side the fact I spent the whole time trying to figure out how Woo could work someone jumping sideways firing two pistols into a flick about the Second World War, I really didn’t enjoy the movie at all. Its plodding, obvious narrative structure was devoid of any real depth. The predictable plot sailed forward at a relaxed pace meaning the urgency of war was completely lost. Initially, I was pretty uncomfortable with a Japanese director helming a WWII movie about American heroics. I would wince whenever I heard words like “nip”, but it subsided into a malaise of dull and uninteresting racial slurs seemingly to show how thick his skin indeed was.
I can imagine how interesting a Japanese directors take on the American side of that series of battles could be, but this is not that demonstrates any level of depth, choosing to splash around in the tepid, shallow end for effect. The performances were decent enough, Cage channeling his inner sad sack that we have seen before in Leaving Las Vegas, which he spoofed so elegantly in Adaptation. While Slater plays himself as a soldier, it is difficult not to enjoy his chirpy-in-the-face-of-everything fresh faced newbie.
There are sections of the film which almost work, the battle sequences are well shot but bear no grounding in reality at all. The Japanese don’t fire until they are three feet away from the American army, which is thoroughly absurd, and they only seem to pop up every time Woo gets a bit bored in the edit room.
An overwrought, piece of schmaltzy war guff that paints the US Army as the ultimate saviours of the world (as witness in the last scene’s voice over). There are plenty of fantastic WWII movies, but this is most cetainly not one of them. And to cap it off, there was no jumping sideways firing two pistols! What a gip!