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movies: Windtalkers

Flashy action director John Woo returns to battle with "Windtalkers," a WWII drama about male bonding and bravery.


And "Windtalkers" is, indeed, a movie of substance.

While many might have misgivings about Woo at the helm of such a cinematic and historical endeavor, especially in light of his overly stylized "Mission Impossible 2," let me dispel those fears. Interestingly, the thematic core of "Windtalkers" is not unlike those found in most of Woo's own Hong-Kong-actioners: the exploration of the bond that develops between two men from very different worlds.

Here the cultures that clash are represented by U.S. Marine Sgt. Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) and Pvt. Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), one of the Navajo tribesmen recruited to use their native tongue as a secret military code in radio communications. Of course, the ultimate bonding between Enders and Yahzee is anything but instantaneous.

Enders remains haunted by the battle that left him with a severe ear injury, making him a perfect candidate for the assignment to protect Yahzee — and more importantly, the code itself, at all cost. Yahzee's Navajo beliefs and spiritual outlook on life naturally put him in conflict with Enders' hardened view of the world. The sole survivor of his last mission, Enders seems unconcerned that this new assignment might mean having to kill Yahzee if the integrity of the code should be threatened. Only through the shared experience of the harsh front lines of battle in Japan do the two men come to a mutual understanding of each other. That understanding slowly begins to grow into the more fragile commodity of mutual respect.

Screenwriters John Rice and Joe Batteer successfully tailor history to match Woo's thematic concerns. However, Woo has reined himself in, eschewing his trademark action-flick tricks to fit within the classic context of combat. No eye-popping slo-mo shootouts in "Windtalkers," nor do flocks of birds somehow find their way onto the battlefield. (Although Woo aficionados will relish the distinctly clever way he works that particular visual obsession into this film.)

The movie's large-scale battle sequences definitely have their roots in Spielberg's precedent-setting, hypergraphic scenes of "Saving Private Ryan." But Woo does throw in a few personal touches: a close-quarters standoff where fear and adrenaline are palpable, and the strangely choreographed way some bodies flail when riddled with enemy bullets. While the battle scenes do make the visceral impact, their lasting impression comes from the emotional weight Cage and Beach and the rest of the terrific ensemble cast bring to the scenes.

Cage is effectively — and surprisingly — understated throughout the film, almost making us forget his hammy, badly accented histrionics in his other WWII movie, the terminally dreadful "Captain Corelli's Mandolin." Equally impressive is Beach's performance, the power of which almost seems to sneak up on the audience. Early on, his wide-eyed enthusiasm seems overdone and hard to swallow, but that choice soon reveals itself to be just the right stuff to fuel his character's emotional progress.

Lending incredible support to Cage and Beach are a varied group of newcomers and veteran actors: Mark Ruffalo, Noah Emmerich, Peter Stormare, Brian Van Holt, and especially Roger Willie and Christian Slater, who portray, respectively, another pairing of a Navajo code-talker and his protector.

Diehard Woo fans inevitably will compare "Windtalkers" — negatively, of course — to his previous war film, the harrowing, Vietnam-set 1990 Hong Kong production "Bullet in the Head." Nowhere near as dark or uncompromising, "Windtalkers" definitely stands tall and proud, even as it indulges in the tiniest bit of flag-waving at the end. But that is a minor quibble. As far as Hollywoodized war movies go, "Windtalk-ers" effectively dodges the hackneyed patriotic bullet, choosing instead to give us a film full of firepower and stunning emotional impact. S

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