Nicolas Cage, who plays a shell-shocked Marine in John Woo’s Windtalkers, has been taken to task by critics, and by fellow actors like Sean Penn, for frittering away his talent on too many paydays. This may be true, but it’s also true that, even in cruddy commercial jobs like The Rock and Con Air and The Family Man, he’s often the only thing worth watching. (Okay, so I haven’t seen Gone in Sixty Seconds, and playing Captain Corelli with that damn mandolin was a jumbo mistake.) Now, once again, Cage is the only reason to check out an otherwise mediocre movie.
What’s disheartening about Windtalkers is that its subject matter is anything but mediocre. Set mostly during the Battle of Saipan in 1944, it’s about the Navajos who were recruited in World War II to employ a secret military code based on their language – the only code never broken by the Japanese. It’s typical of the film that we learn little about how the code works, presumably because audiences would not be interested in such arcana. I think the filmmakers miscalculated. I kept wishing I was watching a documentary about the wartime Navajos and what they accomplished instead of all this specious Hollywood hoo-ha. The most dubious notion raised by the movie is that the Marine guards assigned to protect the code talkers were also charged with protecting the code at all costs should a Navajo fall into enemy hands. Woo builds an entire movie around the unsubstantiated premise that a Marine would have been ordered to kill a fellow Marine. We don’t need such trumpery in order to buy into a real-life story that has more than enough heart to begin with.
Cage’s Joe Enders, a by-the-book Marine who lost his entire platoon in the Solomon Islands, is reassigned to guard Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), a Navajo in a reconnaissance unit on Saipan. Enders feels responsible for the death of his platoon and sees his new assignment as a chance to redeem himself. It’s to Cage’s credit that his hokum level is low. The man we see is so stricken and blasted that he seems beyond any real redemption. Cage doesn’t offer cheap sops to the audience, even when his character is required to go from hard-bitten to soft-boiled – when he realizes that he can’t get himself to terminate Yahzee. (Big surprise.)
The Navajos, on the other hand, are waist-deep in hokum. Besides Yahzee, there’s Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie), a huggy-bear of a man who is being guarded by Christian Slater’s Ox Henderson. (The name Ox doesn’t quite suit the character; Yak would be better.) Yahzee and Charlie rise above the racism that occasionally flares in the platoon. They’re sainted warriors with a spiritual dimension lacking in their white cohorts. At the same time, they’re just simple, ordinary folk. Any bad feelings they might have about serving a country that keeps them down on the reservation are subsumed by duty. They seem beyond psychology. When, for example, Yahzee finally overcomes his reluctance to maim and turns into a killing machine, there is no horror in the transformation. A cardboard saint has turned into a cardboard avenger, and then the moment passes and he’s back to being a cardboard good guy.
As befits a John Woo movie, the combat scenes have some panache, but not enough. His multicamera slo-mo balletics don’t really conjure up the heat of battle; they conjure up other John Woo movies. His explosions of violence have become generic, another reason why this movie, which is rooted in authenticity, seems so inauthentic.
In the new Jerry Bruckheimer–produced spy thriller Bad Company, directed by Joel Schumacher and set in Prague and New York and Jersey City, Anthony Hopkins and Chris Rock are teamed. It’s such a screwy odd-couple high concept that for a few fleeting moments I had hopes it might actually succeed. But Rock doesn’t really act with the other performers; he stands next to them and buzzes in his own orbit. Hopkins plays a CIA operative heading up a team to foil nuclear terrorists (here we go again), and he doesn’t seem to be in the movie, either. Unlike Nicolas Cage, Hopkins doesn’t put a whole lot into these paydays, which may be the more sensible approach.
As with many of Bruckheimer’s “comedies,” like Beverly Hills Cop and Bad Boys, this one has large swatches of pumped-up action with no humor whatsoever. And like those films, it milks the same racial stereotypes it sends up. In Bad Company, Chris Rock is playing a dual role: He’s Kevin, a top-notch CIA agent with an Ivy League background and a distaste for rap music, who is killed off early; and he’s also Kevin’s separated-at-birth twin brother, Jake, a street-smart hustler and D.J. who is trained by the CIA to impersonate Kevin. We’re supposed to find it funny when Jake gulps down expensive wine or listens to classical music and reacts in horror. Meanwhile, he skedaddles bug-eyed through the mayhem. Some of this stuff is uncomfortably close to minstrelsy. Bad Company closes on a patriotic note in a brief scene that pays heartfelt tribute to the terrorist-thwarting sacrifices of the CIA. Timing is everything, I guess.
The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) is a nearly three-hour Inuit movie, shot on a small island in the North Baffin region of the Canadian Arctic. While it may superficially resemble a documentary, it’s based on an ancient legend and fully scripted, by the late Paul Apak Angilirq, and acted by Inuits. Natar Ungalaaq plays the fast runner whose appropriation of another man’s fiancée tears apart their nomadic community. The director, Zacharias Kunuk, has worked extensively as a filmmaker for Inuit TV; this is his first theatrical feature, shot in wide-screen digital Betacam. At times it’s plodding and inchoate, but there’s certainly nothing else like it in the movies right now, and it has at least one great sequence: The film’s hero, who has been awakened in his sleep, escapes his deadly pursuers by fleeing naked over the spring sea ice. The flat, endless horizon offers no solace and yet he races on. It’s one of the most terrifyingly beautiful sequences I’ve ever seen.
Directed by John Woo; Starring Nicolas Cage, Christian Slater, Roger Willie.
Directed by Joel Schumacher; starring Anthony Hopkins, Chris Rock.