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Never let it be said that John Woo can’t assimilate. Born in Guangzhou, China, Woo moved with his family to Hong Kong when he was 4 and was educated in missionary schools, where he became a Christian. He served a cinematic apprenticeship at Cathay and Shaw Brothers Studios, directing comedies and love stories as well as the hyperstylized gangster flicks that made his international reputation in the mid-’80s. In the early ’90s, with British rule soon to end in Hong Kong, Woo relocated to Hollywood, where he worked his way up from Jean-Claude Van Damme to Tom Cruise, scoring a certifiable hit with Mission: Impossible 2. What next? A Spielberg move, earnestly glorifying the Greatest Generation, but with an ethnic-conflict twist.
Like Schindler’s List, Windtalkers fictionalizes a previously obscure chapter of World War II history: To foil Japanese code-breakers, the U.S. military recruited Navajos to broadcast battle information in a code based on their little-known, unwritten language. According to John Rice and Joe Batteer’s script, such Navajo recruits as Ben Yahzee (slow-talking Smoke Signals lead Adam Beach) and Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie) didn’t just endure the racism of fellow Marines such as Southern dimwit Chick (Noah Emmerich); they also faced the possibility of being killed by their own minders, who had been ordered to terminate any codetalker who was at risk of falling into the hands of the Japanese.
This premise, although historically unverified, is full of dramatic possibility. Yet Woo devotes most of Windtalkers’ overextended 134 minutes not to psychological conflict but to Saving Private Ryan-style full-immersion battle sequences. After a crypto-mystic prologue in Arizona’s high desert, the film cuts to the Solomon Islands, where Cpl. Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) earns another stripe by holding his position while every member of his command is slain. His spirit even more damaged than his perforated eardrum, Joe nonetheless insists on returning to combat; he enlists lovely nurse Rita (Frances O’Connor, grinning nervously in an attempt to hide the fact that she’s completely lost in Wooville) to help him cheat on a hearing test. Assigned to protect Ben—and, possibly, to kill him—dour Joe then heads for Saipan for another hour or so of visceral yet routine firefights. He cares nothing for life, so he doesn’t even read Rita’s letters—but then he doesn’t have to, because they’re all heard in voice-over.
Woo has made several films in which cops and gangsters die in numbers that almost rival Windtalkers’ astronomical Japanese body count, but this is only his second battlefield epic—and it could hardly be less like his first, 1990’s Bullet in the Head. That Vietnam War rave-up was Woo at his most delirious, a riot of slo-mo, quick cuts, lyrical dissolves, and ruinous male-bonding set to the tune of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.” Tellingly, Windtalkers’ musical motif is the New Age-y murmur of Indian flute, and the camera, though in constant motion, is coolly detached. Woo’s previous models were wild-eyed stylists Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, and Jean-Pierre Melville, but his latest effort is skillfully anonymous, with even less flash than recent Spielbergers.
Although his growing bond with Ben is an inevitability, Joe is too hard-bitten a character to help develop the movie’s rudimentary Indians-are-people-too theme. So Charlie is provided with a keeper, Pete “Ox” Henderson (Christian Slater), who’s more openly skeptical of his assignment to protect the code rather than the codetalker. Yet Ox’s humanitarian role is limited mostly to a series of harmonica/flute duets with Charlie; when the tale’s central moral question must be answered with action, Ox is out of commission.
That’s intentional, of course. The one-dimensional Cage is the film’s star, so any ethical wrangling must be left to Joe. Still, it’s curious that a movie directed by an Asian should suffer so acutely from white-guy syndrome. The Navajos are potentially Windtalkers’ most interesting characters, yet they’re reduced to a series of new-recruit cliches: Ben spills coffee on Joe the first time he meets him, bawls that he’s been wounded when it’s only his radio that took a hit, and gazes at the picture of his wife and son he keeps inside his helmet. Rice and Batteer’s screenplay misfires repeatedly, and not always because it’s bowing to movie-star privilege. Most perplexingly, Windtalkers wants us to accept that the Navajo code was crucial to winning the war in the Pacific, yet fails to offer any instances of the codetalkers conveying information that needs to be kept secret.
With one episode of American troops’ being devastated by “friendly” shelling and another in which a GI is engulfed by the burning fuel of his own flamethrower, Woo’s film is more harrowing than old-Hollywood WWII pictures. Still, the movie hardly misses a single commonplace of the genre, from the American soldiers’ kindness to local kids to our hero’s sudden command of essential if unlikely skills. It’s unfortunately characteristic of Windtalkers that its biggest act of linguistic heroism comes not when Ben uses his Navajo but when Joe reveals an implausible ability to speak Japanese.
It never actually rains in Rain, which is one of the few ways in which New Zealand director Christine Jeffs’ first feature is subtler than The Ice Storm. Both films are set in the early ’70s, observe misbehaving adults and their perilously unsupervised children, and augur a metaphorical meteorological punishment: A hard rain’s gonna fall, sweeping away an innocent to atone for a clan’s narcissistic excesses.
Scripted by Jeffs from Kirsty Gunn’s well-reviewed novel, Rain initially appears naturalistic. A lazy summer on the New Zealand coast is evoked with long, uneventful takes and offhand, sometimes muffled dialogue. The film seems to be about middle-aged Kate (Sarah Peirse), taking its aimless, slightly woozy disposition from her perennially inebriated state. Drifting apart from bland, ineffectual husband Ed (Alistair Browning), Kate haphazardly pursues itinerant photographer Cady (Marton Csokas), an alluringly rough-edged maverick who’s living on a yacht near the family’s vacation home.
Migraine-ridden when she isn’t tipsy, Kate mostly leaves her kids unwatched. Sulky 13-year-old Janey (Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki) becomes the primary overseer of her delicate younger brother, Jim (Aaron Murphy), as well as the story’s focus. Janey and Jim eat ice cream for breakfast, watch their elders skinny-dipping, and check out a skin mag together in the outhouse, giggling. Accepted as an honorary adult at the booze-fueled grown-up parties, Janey is indulgently offered cigarettes and sips from various cocktails, over her mother’s feeble protests. There are apparently few other kids in the beachfront town, so Janey can find only one boy her own age for sexual experimentation. After dispensing a few kisses that are more taunting than affectionate, Janey decides to compete directly with her mother, insisting that Cady photograph her for her “portfolio” as a pretext to seduce him. She leads him up a forested slope—which is the cue for karmic retribution.
The movie really is as lurid as this synopsis makes it sound, although it has a laid-back ambience that suggests a less sensational outcome might be possible. After all, the folk-rock ditties Neil Finn sings on the soundtrack could hardly be less dramatic, and cinematographer John Toon’s images evoke a sun-bleached heaven where nothing could ever happen. Jeffs is a veteran of TV commercials, however, and ultimately she means to sell something, using the film’s deadpan literary languor as a setup for a heavily foreshadowed calamity that plays like the kicker to a ’50s-Hollywood soaper. Rain may have a slacker vibe, but its moralism works overtime. CP