MGM, 2001

There must be something in the Los Angeles water supply that causes amnesia. John Woo was recently asked why he made Windtalkers. His reply was simple and straight forward: “I had always wanted to make a war movie.” He seems to have completely forgotten about Bullet in the Head, his 1990 Vietnam epic that easily ranks as one of the best films ever made, war movie or not. Windtalkers, on the other hand, easily ranks as an all-time career low.

It used to be that Woo elevated cinema to heights that other directors could scarcely imagine, and certainly feared to tread. His seamless combination of operatic emotional torment, dizzying phrenetic violence, and the transcendent themes of friendship, loyalty, and revenge, set him apart even from his Hong Kong colleagues who exploited similar elements individually, and to far less effect.

Unfortunately, Bullet in the Head was twelve years ago. And the fates have buffeted John Woo in radically different directions. Hong Kong reverted to the control of mainland China. Woo now lives in Hollywood, and the quality of his films has been sporadic at best. They have much of the flash but none of the soul of his pre-immigration work. Between his clashes with the MPAA housewives in charge of doling out ratings, and the fact that the new push in action film marketing is to the PG-13 demographic, the creativity of his early work has been eviscerated down to slow motion explosions and doves flapping about. And with the substance, seems to have gone spark and imagination of Woo’s vision. After the autopilot performances turned in by the casts of Face/Off and MI:2, he proves once again unable to work effectively with actors outside of his native language. American actors seem incapable of understanding what he’s pushing for in terms of emotional extremes, and Woo seems equally incapable of (or disinterested in) communicating with them, of reining them in and extracting the performances he envisions. And yet again, he’s obsessively cast Nicolas Cage in a wildly inappropriate part.

Cage has the dramatic range of a bipolar mannequin: when he’s “on,” he’s ridiculous, and when he’s “off,” you might as well be looking at someone in a coma. The only reason his Oscar-winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas even began to work, is that the excesses of the character were nothing more than the outer range of the deranged screwball / hapless loser persona he refined in stellar comedies as Moonstruck and Honeymoon in Vegas. But outside of that alter ego, he has less than no credibility. Only David Lynch has achieved any measure of success outside of the comedy genre (which might be debatable, since no one ever really figured out how to classify Wild at Heart). Cage’s performance as Jesus-Christ-with-the-Kung-Fu-Grip in Con Air, was but the first of an inexorable slide into intense mediocrity. Unlike performers with a well documented improv streak – such as Robin Williams – when Cage goes over the top, he’s simply spastic: all bug eyes and histrionics, as if someone plucked him out of a bad silent film and inflicted him on modern cinema. So here, Cage gets to play pathos and inner torment, and the audience is treated to scene after scene of him grimacing like a little kid watching his puppy get kicked by the neighborhood bully.

The “plot” of the story is as patently absurd as its tortured hero. According to the Hollywood history of the world, the Navajo code talkers were assigned “bodyguards” whose job it was to kill them to prevent them from being captured by the Japanese. It would be hard to imagine a more slanderous insult to memory of the brave American Indians who risked their lives on the field of battle, and to the invaluable role they played in winning the Pacific War.

As if this fabrication wasn’t enough, there are a number of scenes where the characters debate the merits and justification of the war, and bemoan the fact that they enlisted. Apparently, the history book the writers thumbed through for reference began with Vietnam. It seems to have utterly escaped them that those sentiments were shared by absolutely no one serving or living during the war. If ever there was a time when America united to face a common enemy, where the civilians and military acted of a single mind, working together toward a common goal, World War II was it. Perhaps Swing Shift was checked out of the local video store the night they wrote the script.

Windtalkers is such an inert mess that it even manages to pale in comparison to Woo’s stateside debut, the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle, Hard Target. Gone are the miles of dolly track and carefully choreographed set pieces. In their place, a lot of whip pans and pointless slow motion. The doves are gone, too – with a lonely pelican standing in. It’s just not the same.