"Windtalkers" is a powerful premise turned into a stubbornly flat, derivative war movie. The hook is to show how Marines recruited Navajos to radio secret battle positions -- and that those code carriers must be killed if they're about to be captured. It's a situation that's never played as powerfully as might be expected from helmer John Woo.

“Windtalkers” is a powerful premise turned into a stubbornly flat, derivative war movie. The contempo hook is to show how Marines recruited Navajos to radio secret battle positions via the unbreakable code of the Navajo language — and that those code carriers must be killed by their fellow soldiers if they’re about to be captured. But it’s a predicament that’s never played as powerfully as might be expected from director John Woo, who knows his way around the world of men and guns and moral quandaries. Though delayed a year by MGM from its original release, Woo’s first English-language venture into period setting and wartime fits the current patriotic mood, but with battle carnage guaranteed to repel female viewers, pic won’t come close to the B.O. reach of Woo’s previous summer blockbusters.

John Rice’s and Joe Bateer’s purely functional script fails to interject interesting dramatic detail and character into the clash of cultures as Marine grunts, battling Japanese in the bloody struggle for the Pacific island of Saipan in 1944, learn to understand an elite group of Navajo-born Marines. Instead, war movie cliches pile so high, you expect Audie Murphy to leap over the ridge at any moment. And in what could have been one of his most fascinating, subdued roles as a loyal, extremely effective but traumatized Marine, Nicolas Cage is held back every step of the way by the script’s numerous shortcomings.

Pic intercuts between Adam Beach’s Ben, a Navajo recruit leaving wife and child behind on the reservation as he trains to become a “code talker” at Camp Pendleton, and Cage’s Joe as he loses everyone in his platoon during a vicious, close-up battle in the Solomon Islands. When Ben, along with pal Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie) is assigned to code-talking duty with troops shipping out of Hawaii, Joe is already on the island, recuperating from eardrum damage. He cheats his way through a hearing test with aid from a nurse, Rita (Frances O’Connor), who has a soft spot for him, and is assigned to serve as guard to the Navajo code talkers — with orders to protect the code at all costs. Ben is Joe’s charge — babysitter is Joe’s term — and the script formulaically makes certain they don’t get along for most of the pic.

The invasion of Saipan has Joe pulling off moves that would make Sergeant York blush, while Ben is frozen by fear at the bloodshed around him. Pic’s remaining 95 minutes depict the U.S. landing and march up the island, led by Hjelmstad (Peter Stormare), whose origins, judging by Stormare’s bizarre accent, are somewhere mysteriously between Stockholm and New Orleans.

Portrayal of troops taking a Pacific island, the various multicultural elements and the recurring voice-over presence of O’Connor’s Rita as she writes letters to Joe, is too close to “The Thin Red Line” to ignore. If anything, the new pic’s paint-by-numbers approach underlines the sheer originality of the Terrence Malick epic.

“Windtalkers” routinely alternates between battles, rest stops around the campfire and various personality clashes and bonding of the most obvious sort. As enthusiastic as Joe is morose and withdrawn, Ox (Christian Slater) gets chummy with Charlie, performing duets on harmonica and Navajo flute. Ignored by Joe, who doesn’t hide his quiet racism, Ben is assaulted by obnoxious bigot Chick (Noah Emmerich).

Ben gets inspired as Joe continues to kick butt, and, after many aggressive but visually uninspired action scenes, Woo constructs a pair of set pieces more worthy of his oeuvre. The first, in which Ben poses as a Japanese soldier and Joe as his captive, is pic’s most exciting, which allows Woo to revisit some of his favorite situations, such as the “impossible” standoff. Final action climax can’t match the intensity of preceding sequence, in which Joe must perform a deed that almost totally embitters Ben toward him.

Woo fans will be impressed by virtual p.o.v framing of hand-to-hand combat, but will surely miss helmer’s signature ballet-like moves, which had to be sacrificed for period action’s credibility. Graphic carnage is unevenly realized, however, and grander, panoramic vistas of battles are much less convincing than the fixed-bayonets action more akin to the HK gun battles on which Woo wrote the book.

Cage constantly struggles toward a rich, complex characterization of man fighting off contradictory impulses to fight or to quit and run, but the portrait remains incomplete. Probably the fullest realized Indian screen character since the days of “Little Big Man,” Beach’s Ben goes from innocent to warrior, but along a strictly simplistic Hollywood path. Slater brings more spunk to Ox than exists on paper, but, like other support, including Emmerich, Stormare and Mark Ruffalo, is leashed to purely bit-part material.

Physical production, mostly shot on Oahu, is solidly pro but never breathtaking. Composer James Horner quotes other composers — this time, Aaron Copland and Jerry Goldsmith.

Windtalkers

Production

Am MGM release of a Lion Rock production. Produced by John Woo, Terence Chang, Tracie Graham, Alison Rosenzweig. Executive producer, C.O. Erickson. Co-producers, Caroline Macaulay, Arthur Anderson. Directed by John Woo. Screenplay, John Rice, Joe Batteer.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Jeffrey Kimball; editors, Steven Kemper, Jeff Gullo, Tom Rolf; music, James Horner; production designer, Holger Gross; art director, Kevin Ishioka; set decorator, Richard Goddard; costume designer, Nick Scarano; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Richard Goodman; sound designers, Bryan Bowen, Bruce Tanis; supervising sound editor, Mark P. Stoeckinger; visual effects and animation, Cinesite, Boy Wonder Visual Effects; visual effects supervisor, Kevin Lingenfeiser; special effects coordinator, Phil Cory; special makeup effects, Kevin Yagher; stunt coordinator, Brian Smrz; military technical adviser, Sgt. Maj. James Dever; associate producer, Steve Traxler; assistant director, Arthur Anderson; second unit camera, Smrz; casting, Mindy Marin. Reviewed at MGM screening room, Santa Monica, May 22, 2002. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 134 MIN.

With

Joe Enders - Nicolas Cage Ben Yahzee - Adam Beach Hjelmstad - Peter Stormare Chick - Noah Emmerich Pappas - Mark Ruffalo Harrigan - Brian Van Holt Nellie - Martin Henderson Charlie Whitehorse - Roger Willie Rita - Frances O'Connor Ox Henderson - Christian Slater Major Mellitz - Jason Isaacs

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