I don't think the John Woo could actually make a truly bad film. Whilst it's fair to say that his output since moving to America hasn't quite reached the standards of his Hong Kong fare, such as "Hard Boiled" or "The Killer", movies like "Face/Off" and "M:I2" were nothing if not solid entertainment.
In 'Windtalkers', Woo teams up again with Nicolas Cage in a story centering on the Native American Navajo's contribution to the US war effort in WWII, by using their native tongue as the basis for an unbreakable code. Cage stars as Joe Enders, a veteran marine who is assigned the task of protecting a Navajo codetalker, Ben Yahzee, during an invasion of the Japanese island of Saipan. His initial frustration at a 'babysitting' job instead of a conventional mission softens as the film progresses and an uneasy bond develops between the two men.
This is the first time Woo has made a war movie since 1990's 'Bullet in the Head' and many of the same themes are explored here: loyalty, friendship and the way that war has a habit of breaking these apart. Whilst not being in any way as brutal as his previous war flick, 'Windtalkers' is a gritty, realistic look at life as a soldier. There is no room for heroics here, and whilst there is plenty of gunfire and enough explosions to keep the most ardent action fans happy, Woo is very restrained in his trademark operatic shots of slo-mo double handed gunplay. The action is fast and brutal, with little or no build up at all, much the way you'd expect war itself to be. The battle scenes are, as you'd expect, expertly choreographed and the real sense of not knowing where your enemy is going to come from is perfectly realised as Japanese soldiers burst out of the long grass to ambush the GI's.
The real problem comes with the pacing of the movie, it is very much a case of 'action scene-quiet scene-action scene-quite scene' and it's these 'quiet scenes' that cause most problems. Whilst the relationship between Enders and Yahzee is nicely handled. The relationship between Christian Slater's Sgt. Anderson and his own 'codetalker' is a little bit heavy handed. Woo even goes as far as having Slater play a harmonica around the campfire in order to facilitate his friendship with his Navajo-flute-playing charge. The real shame here, is that we know that John Woo can direct actors. Look at how he directed Chow Yun-Fat in 'The Killer' and 'Hard Boiled' and then look at how he directs Nicolas Cage both here and in 'Face/Off'. The difference is incredible - the Hong Kong movies have understated characters that grow naturally throughout the movies, whereas the US films seem to almost have caricatures that plod through the emotional scenes in order to make it to the next action scene.
Talking of action - nobody is likely to be left disappointed. The action scenes are truly tense and very graphic. It's hard not to draw comparisons with 'Saving Private Ryan' and it's true to say that 'Windtalkers' does come off worse between then two. But this is only because the action in Spielberg's film was nowhere near as prevalent as it is here. Maybe John Woo should take a leaf out of Big Steve's book and realise that it's quality and not quantity that counts. It should also be mentioned that during one of these action scenes, there is the most blatant use of library stock footage being used that I have ever seen in a big budget movie. Quite why it was deemed necessary, I have no idea but, believe me, you'll know it when you see it.
All in all a solid enough entry from John Woo - but special mention should go to Christian Slater, another Woo veteran. If he sticks with the director long enough, he might just turn into a bona-fide action hero himself. He's better here than he's been in a very long time.