Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
This is the part of my Windtalkers review where I remind you how poorly the film fared at the box office. After two straight hits – 1997’s Face/Off and 2000’s Mission: Impossible 2 - John Woo got the green light for this $115 million World War II epic. However, after the aftermath of September 11 moved back its release date from the fall of 2001 to the summer of 2002, the film failed to find an audience. During the competitive summer season, Windtalkers earned an anemic $40 million at the US box office, a figure that barely covered a third of its cost.
Did Windtalkers deserve such a fate? No, the movie offers enough interesting material that it merited a better reception. However, I do think it failed to live up to its potential, as the film comes across as surprisingly flat for a John Woo picture.
Set mostly during the Pacific war in 1943, Windtalkers mainly concerns two characters. Corporal Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) loses some men during combat, and he blames himself. He suffers from a perforated eardrum so he shouldn’t go back to battle, but he clearly feels the need to return and redeem himself.
Enders gets the chance when the Marines assign him to guard one of their new code men. Since the Japanese seem to break every system they use, they adapt the Navajo language and use members of that tribe to send messages. Newly promoted to sergeant, Enders winds up with Private Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), a kind and naïve family man. Joe needs to protect Ben in combat, or more accurately, he must preserve the code; neither Ben nor his Navajo compatriots can be taken prisoner, for that would endanger the system.
The movie largely follows the battle events but it doesn’t move toward anything particularly climactic. Unlike Saving Private Ryan, for example, Windtalkers doesn’t feature a distinct plot or an emphasis on any real goal. Really, the film mainly acts as a character piece as it moves inexorably toward a scene in which Joe has to repeat his earlier combat experiences. A situation will also occur in which Joe has to decide whether to take Ben’s life to save the code.
Perhaps my comments about those segments should be considered spoilers, but a) I won’t tell you what happens, and b) it doesn’t take much perception to see where the movie will go from almost word one. While Windtalkers offers a moderately compelling experience, it never becomes anything more than that. This makes it a disappointment considering the talent involved; I can’t recall another Woo movie that seems quite so pedestrian.
On the positive side, Woo depicts the battle scenes in an appropriately brutal manner. I’ve seen some other reviews that accused Woo of glorifying war, but I didn’t see it that way. I thought the fight segments seemed surprisingly rugged and visceral, especially as they featured some rough hand-to-hand material. The film never became special, but at least it kicked into life during those scenes.
Otherwise, Windtalkers seems relentlessly mediocre. Cage presents a decent performance but nothing more than that, and almost none of the other actors stand out from the crowd. The characters come across as generic and flat. Of course, we must have the racist one who learns to appreciate other cultures, and we also get the standard Italian-American who’s Italian-American just because every movie needs one.
The only character who seems moderately compelling is Ben’s Navajo buddy Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie). The personality doesn’t have much to it, but at least Woo allows Willie to get some fine action sequences. Charlie kicks some massive butt during a couple of the hand-to-hand segments, and he comes across as the liveliest personality in the film. Usually the character development seems stilted and awkward.
While the fight scenes provide some life, the rest of the film plods along and goes pretty much nowhere. From the bland and pedestrian characters to the limp plotting, Windtalkers falls flat. The story had some potential, and the film includes real talent, but the result seems flat and lifeless for the most part.
The DVD Grades: Picture B- / Audio A- / Bonus D-
Windtalkers appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided, double-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the letterboxed picture was reviewed for this article. Considering the age and budget of the film, I found Windtalkers to offer a surprisingly erratic visual affair.
Sharpness varied. Most of the movie came across as acceptably accurate and distinct, but quite a few less than detailed segments occurred. At times the film seemed a little blurry, largely due to the presence of some notable edge enhancement. From the opening credits through too many other parts of the flick, I noticed distinct halos around lettering and objects, and these made the image less crisp than it should. Jagged edges and moiré effects created no obvious concerns, and only a few small print flaws appeared. I saw a little light grain at times, and I also detected a few bits of grain, but most of the movie came across as clean and fresh. However, I did think the presentation seemed a little noisy at times.
Colors offered some of the transfer’s strongest elements. The movie provided a naturalistic palette for the most part, and the tones looked vivid and rich throughout the film. I noticed no signs of bleeding, noise, or other issues and felt the colors appeared lively and vibrant. Black levels also came across as deep and dense, but shadow detail seemed a bit weak at times. Low-light sequences were somewhat thick in general, and these tendencies appeared exacerbated by some problematic “day for night” photography. Those scenes displayed a heavy bluish tint that made them too impenetrable. Much of Windtalkers presented good visuals, but too much of it showed distinct concerns to merit a grade above a “B-“.
On the positive side, I felt more impressed by the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Windtalkers. Though not reference level, it offered a pretty solid piece of work. The soundfield maintained an active and engaging affair. During the film’s quieter scenes, the forward channels dominated. They remained somewhat passive at those times, but they still showed good stereo imaging for the score and also offered generally realistic ambience.
Not surprisingly, this war movie kicked to auditory life during its many battle scenes, and those offered excellent use of all five channels. The action tended to fly hot and heavy as bullets, artillery and other military elements zipped all around the soundfield. The elements seemed appropriately located and they blended together nicely, though a few bits seemed slightly speaker-specific. The surrounds added a fair amount of unique information and meshed together neatly. The results didn’t match Saving Private Ryan levels, but they seemed positive.
Audio quality appeared positive. Dialogue came across as natural and warm, as speech showed no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Music seemed bright and vibrant, as the score presented clear highs and tight low-end. Effects packed a serious punch. Those elements appeared distinct and vivid. They lacked problems related to distortion, and they demonstrated deep and rich bass response. Overall, the soundtrack of Windtalkers didn’t match the absolute best of the genre, but it worked very well.
One very annoying element of this DVD: instead of the “burned-in” subtitles seen during the film’s theatrical showings, this Windtalkers uses player-generated text. The movie uses lots of subtitles. It translates Navajo to English and also shows location identifiers and other elements. The player-generated subtitles look unnatural and awkward, and they cause definite distractions. MGM’s decision to provide these subtitles instead of the original ones seems unfortunate.
Often when a high profile movie tanks at the box office, the DVD offers lots of extras to help it rebound in that market. To my surprise, Windtalkers doesn’t fall into that category. The DVD includes almost no supplements. We simply find a collection of trailers. We get both the theatrical and “teaser” clips for Windtalkers as well as ads for Die Another Day, the James Bond DVDs, the Hart’s War DVD, and the Windtalkers soundtrack. Bizarrely, the Windtalkers trailer dubs Peter Stormare with someone less… gutteral, I guess.
Windtalkers offers a watchable but generally mediocre film. It succeeds somewhat during its battle sequences, but otherwise it comes across as flat and generic. The DVD offers decent but surprisingly erratic picture with solid sound and virtually no extras. I can’t say that I disliked Windtalkers, but not enough about it stood out for me to recommend it.
Viewer Film Ratings: 3.4791 Stars|| Number of Votes: 48|