A rich green river flows past the camera. A CG butterfly flutters over the surface. The atmosphere is quiet and peaceful. A red mist seeps into the water. A corpse floats into view. There's Nic Cage with a submachine gun. BADABAMABADABADABAM! Welcome to John Woo's World War Two.
Another combat movie? Yes, delayed for almost a year due to Osama Bin Laden and chums, Windtalkers is the last of the recent glut of big buck, bangs and battle flicks. And while its long gestation period suggests a stinky one brewing, Woo's take on Hell in the Pacific is a bracer for his fans - because John Woo has finally made "A John Woo Movie" in Hollywood.
In the 10 years since Woo left Hong Kong, he's directed dunderheaded Van Damme vehicle Hard Target, nuclear disaster Broken Arrow, invigorating style-over-style shoot-'em-up Face/Off and soulless schlockbuster Mission: Impossible II. Now, finally, he recreates his signature blend of hyperkinetic action and overwrought crises of friendship and conscience familiar from Hong Kong classics Bullet In The Head and The Killer.
The crux is not how "poetically" the director can blow shit up, but the friendship between Cage's shell-shocked sergeant Joe Enders and the Navajo code talker he's assigned to protect. Actually he's told to "protect the code", meaning that should Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach) be in danger of capture, Enders has orders to kill him so he can't blab. Bummer, eh?
Woo takes half an hour to laboriously set this up, starting with unnecessary scenes of Yahzee's training and Enders' recuperation from battle with the help of Frances O'Connor's token female, but eventually Windtalkers settles intoa pattern of histrionic emoting and spectacular set-pieces. Yet while you may fear cartoonish violence in a Face/Off-stylee, Windtalkers is relatively restrained. Sure, the John Woo standards are here (he'll never lay off the slo-mo) and there's an element of The A-Team to some of the Yahzee/ Enders heroics (plus the Japanese shooters are as inaccurate as Star Wars' stormtroopers), but the bombast is grounded in brutality. Cage's vet is bitter, ferocious and merciless and some of the violence is truly sickening. Just as it should be.
It's here that the movie surprises, particularly given the current climate. The Marines are not all heroes. Enders is damaged goods. Yahzee's on his way there. Texan grunt Chick (the excellent Noah Emmerich, who carries off a two-dimensional role and some decidedly dicey dialogue) is a racist. There are incidents of `friendly' fire, and particularly unpleasant scenes involving a flamethrower - used by an American. ""They told me I was a soldier of Christ. Somewhere along the way I must have switched"," says Cage. It's a surprising thought to come out of a mainstream Hollywood movie, and an uncomfortable one for audiences. M:I-2 made $215 million in the US. Windtalkers has bombed.
You don't watch a John Woo movie for subtlety and Nic Cage won't ever be accused of underplaying, but take it on its own operatic, OTT terms, and Windtalkers delivers.