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(2002) *** R
134 min. MGM. Director: John Woo. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Peter Stormare, Noah Emmerich, Mark Ruffalo.

More an exercise than a fully-realized film, Windtalkers is nevertheless a perversely funny inversion of a history of American war movies and, for that matter, the B-grade Westerns of yesteryear. It's also a prime match of material for Hong Kong import John Woo, the virtuosic maestro of bullets and flames. Here, Woo applies his ingenuity of movie movement to World War II, just about daring that scrawny Private Ryan to bring it on.

Besides being a sly answer to Spielberg's everything-to-everyone war flick, Windtalkers happily reunites Woo with his Face/Off star Nicolas Cage. Cage plays Sergeant Joe Enders, who becomes--physically and emotionally--damaged goods in a no-punches-pulled opening sequence. Left with a cauliflowered ear and little equilibrium, Enders scraps his way back into service only to land what he considers a bum assignment. He's to babysit a soldier whose body is a receptacle for one of America's greatest weapons: a code derived from the Navajo language and used to relay vital, time-sensitive strategic information by radio. The "codetalker" in question is Private Ben Yahzee (sturdy enough Adam Beach), and he's enthusiastic but green as they come. Soon enough, Enders must escort Yahzee through the Battle of Saipan, while not getting too attached; in a worst-case scenario, Enders has merciless orders to "protect the code."

That phrase--"protect the code" is, of course, at the heart of one of the film's jokey concerns. The code of American warfare--like Nazi warfare, lest we forget--is to follow orders, even when they tug at the conscience. Soldiers are to presume that "father knows best" how to serve the "greater good." The code is also, of course, the code of manhood, with its superficial, brutal understanding--too often enacted in vengeance--and undercurrent of brotherly bonding (except, instead of "Ya-ya!" the male cry is something more like "Auuggghhhaaaaahh!"). Lastly, the code is man's mystical connection to earth, wind, and fire, understood by the spiritual Navajo enlisted to serve a cynical army concerned more with survival than the eternal.

The other big joke is purely cinematic. Bookended in John Ford country (that'd be Navajo territory Monument Valley), Windtalkers is an unambiguously anti-war film in the style of a patriotic rah-rah movie. The characters (including smilin' soldier Christian Slater and worried nurse Frances O'Connor) are pure cardboard, and screenwriters John Rice and Joe Batteer spit out the cliches with Gatling-gun zeal. Seen in this light, the film becomes the war-film equivalent of a Busby Berkeley musical, with familiar, starchy dialogue interspersed between orgies of stunningly choreographed music and dance. Every incisive, encoded joke is answered with a pointed Woo image; the man must edit with an ear-to-ear smile. And Woo's lovably idiosyncratic rhythmic choices prove there's more than one way to skin an action movie.

There's a limit to how well this can work--Woo falls a bit short of the emotional goalpost--but, as with Woo's audacious HK cinema breakthroughs, Windtalkers leaves one admiring his chutzpah. He manages to reinvigorate a star beginning to look like a lost cause; Cage brings credible movie star wattage, hits Woo's operatic beats, and nails a centerpiece dramatic scene in which he drunkenly confronts the absurdity of his situation. Woo also seems to have saved himself from being exploited by the American war--err, movie--machine, losing nothing in the translation.

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