Set against the backdrop of World War II, Windtalkers is a dramatization of how the U.S. military enlisted the services of Native American Indians to formulate a top secret code that could be used to relay encrypted transmissions. Based on the Navajo language, this unique code proved to be unbreakable by the enemy forces of Japan, and was critical in furthering the cause of the Allies.
The story of Windtalkers focuses on a pair of Marines: Sergeant Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) and the Navajo "codetalker" he is partnered with, Private Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach). Both are part of a platoon fighting to gain ground against Japan and eventually advance on Tokyo, but both have very specialized functions within their unit. Yahzee is one of the few who can speak and decipher the Navajo code, so he is the single most important soldier to the operation's communications. Meanwhile, Enders is assigned the grim task of protecting Yahzee, no matter the cost--that means going so far as killing him should he jeopardize the code's security by getting captured by the Japanese.
The first half of the movie is interesting. The special nature of the code, the unexpected patriotism of the Navajo Indians, Yahzee's eagerness to fight for a country that barely recognizes his people, and Enders' nearly insane dedication to duty are all solid storylines developed from the start. Further, Windtalkers delivers its message of racial harmony without ever really resorting to heavy handed preaching or overly politically correct mumbo-jumbo. Audiences come to respect the Navajo Marines because of their actions, not because of longwinded, patronizing speeches.
The problem is that the film resorts to so many paint-by-numbers cliches that it turns out to be wholly predictable, and, in the end, not that unique. Truth be told, if you backed out the Indian aspect, you'd be left with the basic framework from which just about every other modern war film is drafted. Some overused standards that drag the movie down by the second half include these familiar elements: the ignorant racist who suddenly has a lot to think about when the person he was picking on saves his life; a leaders's tormented past and his frenzied declaration that he won't let anyone die out in this stinking, godforsaken hellhole!!!; military brass being depicted as coldblooded bastards who "just don't get it, man."
Christian Slater and Roger Willie, another bodyguard/codetalker pair, are both good in supporting roles, often upstaging the main stars. Their relationship is the most down to earth of the whole movie, and keeps the action grounded. Also strong is the relationship between the two codetalkers themselves, as both Navajo men have the same duties, but different views of society.
Director John Woo, known for his stylized action flicks, graciously spares us most of the cheesy gimmicks that often plague his work. There's no scene of Nicolas Cage diving past an open door in slow motion and grabbing two guns while a flock of white doves break into flight behind him. For the most part, the demeanor of Windtalkers is grim and realistic. A scene in which a Marine gets tangled in barbed wire and gunned down is brutally gritty, as is the platoon's precarious trek through a minefield. But I guess Woo can't completely abandon his signature moves, because there's a few instances of the action getting unrealistically out of hand--most noticeably, the sequence in which Cage goes John Rambo and singlehandedly takes out a whole slew of Japanese. Also, watch out for any scene in which an Indian whips out his hunting knife, because a crazy ass-kicking will follow.
Ultimately, though, the constant barrage of fighting gets repetitive. This film that began as the enlightening story of unsung heroes turns into a standard war drama. Windtalkers scores a few points for its core intent, but quickly loses them for lack of originality and tiresome predictability.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)