Written by: Joe Batteer & John Rice
Directed by: John Woo
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Roger Willie, Christian Slater, Noah Emmerich
- Intro by director Woo
- Running audio commentary by Woo and producer Terence Chang
- Running audio commentary by actors Cage and Slater
- Running audio commentary by actor Willie and Navajo code talker advisor Albert Smith
- Theatrical trailers
- The Code Talkers: A Secret Code of Honor documentary
- American Heroes: A Tribute to Navajo Code Talkers
- Music of Windtalkers featurette
- Battle sequence multi-view of four different scenes
- Four “fly-on-the-set scene diaries”
- Actors’ Boot Camp featurette
- Photo gallery
- Woo biography
Released by: MGM
My Advice: Borrow it.
[ad#longpost]It’s World War II, the Pacific theater. Joe Enders (Cage) has just survived an ill-advised order to hold a particular position–trouble is, all his buddies weren’t so lucky. Left with inner ear damage and a screwed up equilibrium, he also gets decorated twice and finds himself up for a special assignment. A new code has been devised to muck with the Japanese cryptologists–and it’s a doozer: a code that’s not in English, but a code in the Navajo language. Not the language itself, but a code in that language–so that it’s sure to keep the enemy scratching their heads in bewilderment. The mission is very simple: protect the code. Not the codetalker, mind you: just the code. At all costs.
This movie is a resounding disappointment, for pretty much the same reasons as Pearl Harbor: namely, that rather that use an existing, real story–that’s not good enough for Hollywood. Just as that Bay-directed travesty felt the need to place an excruciating love triangle in the middle of December 7th, this film creates fictional characters in a fictional situation (no Marines were given the order to kill their fellow soldiers) and then makes Cage the star of the show. If the filmmakers were half as concerned with bringing the story of the Navajo codetalkers to light (seeing as how the entire thing was classified until long after the end of the war), why didn’t they make a movie about the experience of these people? Instead we get this half-baked attempt at a war movie that just happens to have a couple of Native American characters. Trust me, I’m not being PC here–but it just angers me when people don’t trust their source material.
Not helping matters is the fact that Woo was the wrong person to direct this film, even with the warts inherent in the script. Woo is not a man who knows subtlety–it’s not even a point of his, much less a strong one. But that’s okay–stick two pistols in the hands of a character with some slo-mo leaps and who the hell wants subtle? Trouble is, Woo is fighting himself through the entire flick–and admits as much in his commentary. Where he talks about wanting an explosion to go off and have a guy flying X amount of feet in the air and says that his stunt people had to talk him out of it–“You did say you wanted this to be realistic, right?”. This makes the entire film feel like somebody’s trying to dance a ballet Harrison Bergeron-style. But even so, the battles feel like they go on for days and when you do have people interacting, they don’t feel real. It’s Woo’s hyper-surrealism on lithium and is a total mismatch of style. James Horner’s musical score, which is completely out of control (although follows Woo’s lead for lack of subtlety), only makes matters worse.
That’s not to say there isn’t some good in the film, it’s just overwhelmed by everything else. Drowned in the tsunami of suck are, first up, Cage himself–who’s actually good at playing a stone-faced, half-crazed military killing machine. How strange that of all the comic book heroes he’s attached himself to play, he’s never, to my knowledge, signed up for one that he has now proven to me he could play: Sgt. Rock. The two standouts of the film are Adam Beach and Roger Willie. Beach is the quintessential naive soldier who can’t wait to see some action–only because he has no idea what action really entails. Willie, an actual Navajo (Beach is apparently from the Ojibwa nation), holds his own remarkably well considering it’s his first acting role. Their camaraderie is particularly effective. Notice must be given to Christian Slater and Noah Emmerich as well: Emmerich is a good racist redneck and Slater is, well, Slater.
After a demoralizing showing on the feature side, I was hoping that some deep bonus features would save the day. Unfortunately, they are mostly lackluster. The overall feeling from most everything is that it’s an act of desperation to try and recover some of the budget that the film’s $40 million box office take didn’t cover–which is most of it.
Woo and Chang’s commentary track is extremely lackluster, unfortunately. Although what does stand out is two things: first, that their desire to create a film that would bring the story of the Navajo codetalkers to light was genuine. However, based on evidence, it was misguided enough to think that fictionalizing a story (and not even a very good one) would be the key to doing this. Second, Woo’s desire to rein himself in and become Subtle Action Director Guy as opposed to Gun in Each Fist Action Director Guy is genuine–but as stated above, it clashes with the situation to create long action sequences that, although impressive, seem plastic and uninteresting. There are long, long spaces of silence in this track.
Cage and Slater’s track isn’t much better. They state upfront that they are there as a favor to Woo, and Cage states that he normally doesn’t do commentary tracks because he feels like they will ruin the movie for people. Considering that commentary tracks are optional, I’m not sure where he’s coming from on this. They spend some time laughing at what went on on screen, talking about the experience–but most of the time it seems they’re sitting back and watching the movie. There are huge stretches of silence in this one and not much interesting being said.
The third commentary track is the gem of the entire set. Featuring actor Roger Willie and Albert Smith, the real Congressional Silver Medal-winning Navajo codetalker who served as a consultant on the film, it’s hands down the best thing on here. First, and nicely done, is the fact they each introduce themselves in the Navajo tongue and then repeat what they’ve said in English. Willie does a nice job of balancing talking about his role in the film and why he took the part with encouraging Smith to enlighten us as to how things went being a real codetalker, and also some of the cultural ideas behind what we’re seeing in the film. For example, Navajo warriors were ostensibly extricated from society in order to go and do their business without corrupting said society with their violence, necessary or not. A ceremony of this kind is simulated in the film. A note in the film’s favor is that, from what I can tell, what Navajo culture they included was accurate. I saw or heard nothing to tell me otherwise at least. This third track, despite some parts where both men fall silent, is worthy–although when they sign off in Navajo, it would have been nice to, as in the beginning, hear what they had said translated into English.
The documentary on Code Talkers feels like a hastily put together gestalt that’s part half-hearted pseudo-docu on the real life events mixed with bits of the actors and director from the film talking about said film. Doesn’t really gel. The American Heroes boils down to a scrolling list of the names of all the codetalkers, which is a nice tribute, but I would have been more impressed with a scrapbook of the people, photos and whatnot. Some are presented, but only a handful. At least with the original gold medal-winning codetalkers, you’d think this would have been possible to get some details on them–but alas.
The rest of the discs are weak as far as merit goes simply because you have to be interested in the film to get off on them. The James Horner featurette is as vastly unengaging as his score was vastly overplayed–and it’s pretty much a commercial for the soundtrack anyway. The multi-view feature that lets you switch between the feature film, storyboards and behind the scenes shots is nice enough, but again, not being impressed with the battle sequences to begin with, I considered it a wash. The diary bits are big on behind the scenes footage, but have very little in the way of voice-overs of the people involved–so calling them diaries is a bit of a misnomer. Probably the standout amongst the stuff one discs two and three is the featurette regarding the boot camp the actors went through; we hear about these things on every military film that comes out, now we get to see what goes into it–so points for that.
What looks like a deep set on the outside collapses once you open the box. For example, discs two and three have maybe an hour’s worth of content on them if you’re lucky. The fact that they didn’t combine them and make this a two-disc set is a headscratcher. Granted, you’ve got ten hours of stuff on disc one (the feature is two and a half hours with the restored footage and if you watch all three commentaries straight through, there you go), but like I said, that’s of varying quality.
If you enjoyed the film, then this will be the set for you. Considering this follows hard upon the original DVD release of this flick, MGM has also got a $10 rebate coupon to help you feel better about purchasing this Mongo set so soon. So fans of the flick will enjoy; everyone else should give it a rental for the sake of the Navajo elements that are worth getting into. Let’s hope that someday somebody makes a film that’s about the Navajo codetalkers and their real story, not the story Hollywood wished they had to play with.