I had a childhood friend with a father who, when he slouched in his worn-out chair spotted with cigarette holes and watched a film on TV, always shouted "See!" whenever a character used the title of the movie as a piece of dialogue.
His point, I think, was to recognize that the people making the movie were aware of what was in their movie - a point less obvious than you would imagine. Anyway, I have a similar movie-going talent - or is it a curse? Bored stiff by any mediocre film, I can spot a scene that unintentionally illustrates what's wrong with the film.
And there's always one.
Midway through John Woo's Windtalkers, a flat, disappointingly generic war movie with a real-life story that's anything but mediocre, I landed my prey.
Now understand - I don't seek out these moments; they just tend to jump out. Windtalkers is a series of sweeping battle scenes set around the Battle of Saipan in 1944. These alternate with long, familiar moments of soldiers sitting around campfires, playing cards, digging graves, acting racist, and being cured of their racism by the stiff-upper-lipped targets of their slurs.
At one point, a soldier even says, "If anything should happen to me, please give this ring to my wife."
But I'm getting ahead of myself. About that illuminating moment: Christian Slater plays Ox Henderson, a Marine ordered to protect a Navajo soldier, Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie). Unlike many of the Navajos and Marines, these two get along. Charlie pulls out his Navajo flute. Ox whips out a harmonica. They jam, and the result is very Neil Young Performs the Lion King Soundtrack, a shambling mess of disjointed notes vying with lush slick ones.
Ta-da: Just like the movie itself. Windtalkers is an awkward title for an entirely awkward film. No matter how many times or ways I say it - "Windtalkers, Windtalkers …" - those words will not roll off my tongue; likewise, a realistic wartime drama does not come effortlessly to Woo, master of over-the-top action hyperbole like Mission: Impossible 2 and outrun-the-fireball classics like Hard Boiled. After a year of rescheduled opening dates, the movie feels too fussed over to have any spark of originality, yet it's also too brutal to be dismissed.
Actually, Windtalkers manages to be so awkward, Windtalkers even forgets it's about a group of Navajos recruited by the Marines during World War II to transmit a military code in the Navajo language. It's Nicolas Cage's story, and he stars as the aptly named Joe Enders, a shell-shocked Marine. After leading soldiers to their deaths on the Solomon Islands, Joe is reassigned to guard a Navajo named Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach).
You would think there's enough there for good drama, but Joe's mission involves a dubious plot twist: More important than Ben is the code itself. I don't doubt this would have been actually true during the war, but Joe is told that if it looks as if Ben might fall into enemy hands, he must kill Ben.
That's how important the Navajo code is to the military. The Marines employed 29 windtalkers. Outside their circle, only 28 non-Navajos understood the code. It was based on 211 military terms, and its complexity came from the use of inflection; small shifts in pronunciation could change a meaning entirely. It was also unwritten; the enemy would have to capture a Navajo to learn it.
I mention all this - compliments of the movie's press material - because none of it is in the film itself, and all of it is more compelling than most of what made it into Windtalkers.
Cage is better than usual as a guy who cares more per square inch than anyone around him but tries to pass it off as cynicism. But the Navajo roles are pure corn. They serve to teach their racist cohorts a lesson in tolerance and perform spiritual rituals. And since we only fleetingly get a sense of how the code works - there's no big scene that relies on it - the film turns into a story about how brave white soldiers protected the stiff-upper-lipped Navajos.
Not suprisingly, Woo has better luck with the action scenes, but not that much better. After a provocative opening image of a stream slowly filling up with blood and corpses, the battles are his usual slow-motion, twin-guns-blazing assaults - all done with scope and some lyricism. I did like his explosions, though; they blow up real good, like weeping willows of sand and blood. Then it's back to the war movie cliche factory where the most harrowing moments in a man's life are reduced to platitudes. Promise me, soldier: If anything happens to me before I finish this sentence, please turn off my computer and tell my editor I tried to care.