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WINDTALKERS
Director's Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Peter Stormare, Noah Emmerich, Mark Ruffalo, Brian Van Holt, Roger Willie, Frances O’Connor, Christian Slater
Director: John Woo
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Stereo Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: MGM
Features: See Review
Length: 153 Minutes
Release Date: May 20, 2003

“You seen any combat, Yahzee?”

“I’m looking forward to getting into some.”

“Are ya, now?”

Film ****

When I first saw John Woo’s World War II saga Windtalkers, I was blown away as I always am by Woo’s work, but noticed a slight flaw or two that kept me from giving it the full four star treatment. Now, with the release of this one of a kind three disc set, which includes the extended director’s cut of the film, I am happy to report that I have upgraded my from three and a half to four stars. The reason for this is pure and simple; the 20 minutes of added footage makes the movie experience all the more exciting and explosive. Usually, director’s cuts can either make or break a good movie, but in the case of Windtalkers, the decision to restore the cut scenes was a thoroughly right one.

The new scenes in this Director’s Cut are mostly that of extended war footage, in addition to several key dialogue scenes between certain characters. Since this version improves on the original, I really can’t see why these scenes deserved to be on the cutting room floor, especially the war sequences. The action in the original 134 minute release contained enough fierce combat to fill up two movies, and yet, I found the extended footage in these scenes to be quite explosive (no pun intended), and give the movie more of an epic feel than before.

Windtalkers works astonishingly well as both a full-throttle action epic and an important history lesson about an area of World War II you may not have discussed in history class. Before this movie's release, I had never heard of the Navajo codetalkers and how they helped the American forces in numerous WWII battles, using a code that was thankfully never broken by enemy forces. Action maestro John Woo has sort of switched gears this time around by making a more serious picture that he's normally use to making, though the level of violence is still high as in the Woo tradition. The result is a dynamite mixture of a thought provoking area of history with that of some of the most heart-stopping and brutal combat sequences that adds up to a much memorable war film.

Nicolas Cage stars in yet another brutally powerful performance as Sgt. Joe Enders, who at the opening of the film is recovering at a military hospital in Hawaii following a bloody battle on the Solomon Islands, where he was the only survivor. When beauty of a nurse Rita (Frances O'Connor) helps Joe in the steps of rehabilitation, Joe is soon able to return to active duty, though certain physical and mental scars remain. Joe is soon handed special orders upon his return, which is to protect one of the newly assigned Navajo soldiers, who have been recruited to use their language as a mechanism to fool the Japanese.

Joe also finds assistance in fellow marine Pete "Ox" Anderson (Christian Slater), who has also been served the same set of orders. The catch of this is assignment is tricky. They cannot allow any of the codetalkers to fall into enemy hands. If they are, the orders are to kill their codetalkers as a way of protecting the code, which of course the Navajos are not aware of. The new soldiers brought in are Pvt. Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach) and Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie). Joe is assigned to Yahzee, while Anderson is assigned to Whitehorse. The mission is to take control of the island of Saipan, which is controlled by Japanese forces.

The battle scenes in Windtalkers are the some of the most lengthy and bloody in movie history, which is just what I would expect from a director like Woo. The action movie maestro doesn't hold a single thing back from the battle scenes, and if you are the squeamish type chances are you won't make it through the movie. As for myself, I can honestly say that after watching this movie I'm never going anywhere near barbed wire fences. What Woo achieves by going full throttle with these sequences is giving perhaps the most devastating up-close look at graphic battle carnage. I can seriously say that no other war movie has delivered a scene like the one where a soldier is hit by a sniper's bullet and lands front and center on a land mine. It's truly a stunning sequence.

If the movie has a slight problem or two, it may be in a few of the characterizations in the platoon squad, which seem more like formulaic caricatures that we've seen in countless other war movies. The one character I could've definitely done without is the obligatory bigot who can't stand the fact that Navajos are serving with them. Of course, he comes around towards the end when his life is saved by you know who. However, this is my lone quibble with the movie, and it hardly lessens the high power of the overall movie, though at the same time it prevents me from giving it a full four star rating.

Still, the dramatic tension is always high, and the relationship between the characters of Sgt. Enders and Pvt. Yahzee is the heart of the movie, and director Woo’s stunning battle scenes will give action fans and Woo admirers alike a lot of bang for their buck. Cage, as always, does a remarkable job of delving into his character and more or less becoming it. Enders is both a dedicated soldier who is tortured by his past experience, and Cage’s performance is stunning in the way his certain emotions are conveyed. As Yahzee, Adam Beach makes quite a star-making performance as the calm and spiritual Navajo who’s proud to be involved in doing his part for his family and country.

It may be true that moviegoers have had enough of war films, and due to unfortunate bad timing, I suppose, Windtalkers suffered at the box office. But this truly deserves a look, as this one succeeds highly on both action and story. After all, when you have such a strong talent combination like Cage and Woo, who also collaborated on the 1997 masterpiece Face/Off, the result is bound to be explosively good.

Video ****

MGM’s original disc needed improvements in several areas, and the video transfer not only exceeds that of the prior disc, but qualifies as one of the best looking transfers of this year. Where as the previous disc had near complete image sharpness, and a few image flaws on the side, this new release is as clear and excessively detailed as you could ever want a print to be. One minor flaw in the original disc was that of softness presented in several nighttime shots, and here those shots have improved a hundred percent. This disc also happens to be dual layered, which can easily explain the improvements in the picture, since the previous release was that of a double sided disc. MGM should be proud of themselves for an extraordinary job well done.

Audio ****

Since the original disc contained quite a superbly bombastic 5.1 mix, I wasn’t expecting anything less in this new version. The reference quality of this track still stands strong, with the frequent war sequences practically turning your living room into a battlefield, thanks to the strong level of range applied to this release. If anything, this should rank right up there with the other terrific sounding war flicks on DVD, such as We Were Soldiers, Pearl Harbor, and Black Hawk Down.

Features ****

Here is where an improvement was sorely needed. If you happened to have bought the first disc, you will recall a surprising lack of extras, but now MGM has pretty much erased the memory of that disc with an all new, wonderfully packaged 3 Disc Set, which qualifies for the best all around release of 2003.

Disc 1, The Feature Film, contains three terrific commentary tracks; one with John Woo and producer Terence Chang, the second with stars Nicolas Cage and Christian Slater, and the third with actor Roger Willie (Charlie) and Navajo consultant Albert Smith. Each commentary is wonderfully informative and a good listen.

Disc 2, which goes beyond the story of the movie, contains three detailed documentaries. The first is a historical documentary titled “The Code Talkers-A Secret Code of Honor”. The second is WWII Tribute Piece titled “American Heroes: A Tribute to the Navajo Codetalkers”. The third and final featurette is a look at James Horner’s powerful musical score to the movie titled “The Music of Windtalkers”.

Disc 3, which goes behind the scenes, features multi-view angle shots of four key battle sequences, four Fly-on-the-Set scene diaries, a intriguing look at the actors going through boot camp including commentary from various actors on their boot camp experience, a behind the scenes photo gallery, and a John Woo biography.

Summary:

Close to the release of the new 3 Disc set for Black Hawk Down, we have yet another outstanding reference quality release of 2003. Windtalkers is a strong war movie made even more terrific with this fascinating Director’s Cut.