Windtalkers

Everyone who knows John Woo's work knows he makes violent films, but his ability to control the effects of his violence sometimes gets lost in the discussion. As masterful a director of violence as Woo is, much of that mastery comes from his obvious repugnance for bloodshed; the closer his violent visions come to those of the real world, the more that repugnance surfaces. Though both bear his unmistakable stamp, there's a considerable leap in tone between the motorbike balletics of Mission: Impossible 2's finale and the gangland fighting in Woo's tales of the Hong Kong underworld, in which he makes the impact of every bullet register, matching gunshot after gunshot to the horrified looks of their witnesses, and often their perpetrators. There's an equally huge leap between those films and Woo war movies like Bullet In The Head and the new Windtalkers, in which the violence and the horror reach another level entirely. Windtalkers opens peacefully, introducing Adam Beach as he prepares to leave a reservation for WWII's Pacific Theater, where he's been assigned to work as a communications officer in a code based on his native Navajo language. Nicolas Cage is introduced less peacefully. Fighting on the Solomon Islands, Cage and his fellow soldiers encounter a series of enemies that appear in a blink, emerging from the brush or over a hill, necessitating the kill-or-be-killed response that puts all but the most basic instincts on hold. As the sole survivor of one nasty scuffle, Cage earns a trip to a Hawaiian hospital, significant hearing loss, and, eventually, a promotion and a new assignment: Protect Beach or, in the event of capture, kill him to prevent the Navajo code from falling into Japanese hands. Determined, unlike his more genial fellow code-protector Christian Slater, to keep a distance from the man he may have to kill, Cage remains reserved with Beach. As the battle for the island of Saipan intensifies, however, he finds his reserve slipping away, even as the ghosts of the past begin to catch up with him. The silly M:I-2 aside, Woo has had better luck than most non-American directors at finding Hollywood projects that are well-suited for his command of action and sweeping confrontations between good and evil. Windtalkers is no exception, but it's a different sort of film. Its action is more harrowing than thrilling, and its evil has less to do with outright villainy than the circumstances of warfare. The script, by John Rice and Joe Batteer, traffics in its share of familiar war-film moments, but Woo, as always, knows how to rework old material into new. The sight of soldiers mowing down enemies with machine guns comes inherited from countless war films, but seldom has it looked so much like torture. Well matched both to the material and each other, Cage and Beach capture Windtalkers' true struggle, the fight to hold on to values like honor, friendship, and tenderness in an environment that demands otherwise. This is as much a Woo trademark as the carefully orchestrated gunplay, and that's what makes him a director of such continuing importance.

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