US marine Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) is the lone survivor of a ferocious 1943 battle on the Solomon Islands and, despite inner ear damage, which affects both his hearing and sense of balance, seems rather keen to get back to the front lines. His return to combat duty for the invasion of Saipan in June 1944, finds Enders partnered with young Navajo indian Ben Yahzee (Canadian actor Adam Beach), who is trained in the use of his native tongue as a top secret military code for vital radio messages that helped win WWII in the South Pacific, as the Japanese were unable to break this language-based code. Ox Henderson (Christian Slater) is the other marine assigned to similar duties when he's partnered with an older 'native American' Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie, a real Navajo). This gang of four are the centre of a compelling and fascinating account of racism, violence, bitterness and dishonour, in addition to more admirable notions of male friendship, loyalty, and noble self-sacrifice, which are all popular themes in director John Woo's best films.
Cage (Face/Off) and Slater (Broken Arrow) have worked on Woo films before, but, surprisingly, this is their first full-scale war film. Peter Stormare is excellent as their commanding officer, but the rest of the players (Noah Emmerich, Brian Van Holt, Mark Ruffalo, etc) rarely demand our interest and only provide action or dialogue for the heroes to react to. As the Navy hospital nurse Rita, who cares about and for a wounded and withdrawn Enders, Frances O'Connor is hardly on screen long enough to make a lasting impression, but she does turn in a superior performance than Kate Beckinsale managed in the deplorably empty spectacle of Pearl Harbor (2001) and, steering a somewhat unusual yet agreeable course for a Hollywood studio project, her obvious attraction to Enders does not result in one of those mainstream-standard romantic interludes.
Although stylised, the massive battlefield sequences (with fighter planes, tanks and artillery, and scores of troops) have a grim authenticity that matches the very best action scenes of Saving Private Ryan (1998), but this is more relentless stuff that avoids the trap of Spielbergian melodrama and sentimentality, generating an occasionally psychotic intensity instead of striving for politically correct escapism in the insipid manner of Pearl Harbor or We Were Soldiers. Unlike those hi-tech productions, Windtalkers opts for rough pyrotechnics and sparing use of slo-mo, instead of glamorous CGI money shots. This factor, coupled with the powerhouse confrontations with poignant tragedy, insane rage and the explorations of Navajo spirituality in Whitehorse's "protection ceremony" chanting rituals, grant Woo's Windtalkers greater thematic depth and emotional range than your average John Wayne war movie. The character development sideshow of blithely naive Yahzee is impressive - as it tracks a vividly troubling arc from his initial happy-go-lucky outlook, through a gradual hardening of attitudes towards his comrades-in-arms and enemy Japanese, before lurching headlong into acts of extreme savagery and suicidal revenge that are just as disturbing as anything from a Peckinpah western.
The DVD has a crisp widescreen format picture with Dolby digital 5.1 sound, in English and Czech, plus subtitles in both languages. Disc extras include exclusive Actors' Bootcamp spotlight on military training schedule for the main cast, Bravo special behind-the-scenes featurette with cast and crew. Fly On The Set Diaries - show the prep and construction of four set-piece battle scenes: Marine March On Saipan, Bazooka, Friendly Fire, and Village Ambush. There's also a photo gallery and two commentary tracks, one from stars Cage and Slater, another by Navajos Albert Smith and Roger Willie.