Went to John Woo’s newest film tonight after work, Windtalkers
; I liked it a lot, but it’s not enough to replace Face/Off
as the exemplar of Woo’s American films. Windtalkers
is certainly a more personal project for Woo then his previous film, Mission Impossible 2
, which was primarily an exercise in genre stylings and romanticism, displaying the common Woo theme of the conflict between duty and friendship, the bond between men who fight and live side by side, as well as a new found interest in extolling the virtues of America as a pluralistic society, the ultimate melting pot. If one was to compare this film with Woo’s HK films, I would immediately think of the harrowing Vietnam epic Bullet in the Head
(savage violence, scarred warriors, women left behind), and to a lesser extent, The Killer
, as two opposites become best friends under fire.
Ever since Saving Private Ryan
in 1998 many directors filming war movies have not only focused on the “realistic” carnage of warfare, but have also relied heavily upon the device of hand-held, quasi-documentary camera work to bring a kind of “you are there” immediatecy to their films, and Windtalkers
is no different. It’s a useful device, but it now does little to distinguish between films, the same goes for the blood and guts. With two major shared characteristics, it’s still interesting to examine the post-SPR war film, and it’s vision war: Three Kings
, our clean, computerized, CNN-war dirtied up a bit, though presented through the prism of a mediated spectacle; Kippur
(yeah, yeah, I know it’s not an American film), war as a muddy hell, characters left floundering in their own existential and political angst (tanks seem to spin around in circles; everyone mired in mud, the sacrifice seems inconsequential); Black Hawk Down
, swarming Third World hordes swarming down on our troops in Mogadishu, schizophrenic, blow by blow reportage contained in glossy, ultra-precise, artful shots; and finally, Windtalkers
, war as hell on Earth (that and the film is bracketed by aerial shots of edenic Monument Valley, mythical shades of John Ford?), befitting Woo’s Christian idealism, Nicholas’s Cage need for ultimate redemption is to be found by facing his own personal Inferno. Besides the constant, whip crack of bullets firing, the whistling of bullets and shrapnel flying through the air, and the thud of bullets tearing flesh apart, fire is the most terrifying and painful threat to both the American and Japanese troops (the sound design in the movie is excellent, and generally the battle scenes are initiated with some surprise, sudden crack of gun fire or whoosh of artillery). There are two prominent immolations, and I lost track of all of the people incinerated by flame throwers or explosions. At one point, Cage’s Enders talks of being a “soldier for Christ” (talking of his Catholic confirmation) but at some point, he “switched teams.” (he identifies himself as a lapsed Catholic) Enders must atone for blindly following orders, sacrificing his friends, his comrades; and he does so by refusing to follow his orders to protect the code, instead he literally drags Yahzee out of hell, sacrificing his own life to save his friends, and finding his faith once again in the face of death (his last words are a “Hail Mary.”)
Just as Woo as forsakes (for the most part) his gliding, graceful cameras for the hand-held camera work, he also places less emphasis on bodies in rest (in his trademark poses, though there are a few) and in (balletic) motion. Instead, Woo uses slow motion, fast cuts, and extreme close-ups to emphasize the affects of the violence; the film is a virtual cornucopia of how 20th century war can mutilate the body. There is no two-fisted gun play, though Cage’s Sgt. Enders is at times, a virtual killing machine (the film often veers between a more realistic depiction of small arms, infantry combat, and a more movieish tone, more traditional Woo type of combat, with the enemy being mowed down), even wielding a submachine gun with one hand. There is even, at one point, a standoff between Private Yahzee and a Japanese soldier, each holding their rifles at each others heads; but instead of respect keeping them from pulling the trigger, it is fear, and the standoff ends when Enders slits the Japanese soldier’s throat. Death is every present in the movie. Pretty much every important scene in the movie during the Saipan campaign either takes place on the battlefield or in a makeshift graveyard.
That the film employs almost every war movie cliché in the last 50 years is largely inconsequential to me; at the most basic level, almost all of Woo’s films are based on what we would today hold as antiquated notions. That he can do so, without a trace of irony, leads me to believe that Woo believes wholeheartedly in what his films say; he is a primitive thinker in the best sense of the word (and never a very subtle director either, I mean in Windtalkers
, Ender’s is literally unbalanced, due to a ruptured eardrum, and lest we forget the shots of Cage running down the beach by himself, intercut with shots of the pounding surf?). Since the whole premise of the movie is based upon the Enders-Yahzee relationship, I think if you believe in it, as I did, the movie will work for you; I believed in the deeper bond between them: the idealist and dutiful young man, his sense of the moral order shaken by the events of the war, and the older man, guilt ridden, becoming friends with his charge, torn apart my the conflicts of his ultimate duty, despite himself.
Just a quick note on the rather naive racial politics of the film, which, I think reflects a recent immigrants newfound love for his adopted home (Woo became a US citizen in 1999). it’s pretty much dramatized via the metaphor of Charlie and Ox (who btw, has a fairly funny piece of throw away dialogue about yogurt) mixing the traditional Navajo flute with a harmonica, and the evolution of the racist character of Chick. Just wanted to note, what was to me an interesting piece of dialogue from his character, about how he says (I’ll paraphrase), that in 50 years we will be sitting having a drink with the Japanese and looking for someone else’s ass to kick. Kind of out of place sentiments in a war movie, but how true.