In the midst of one of World War II's most brutal conflicts, The Battle of Saipan, Sergeant Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) is forced to chaperone young Navajo trainee Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), one of the many Native Americans that the military has employed to use their language as an impossible-to-crack secret code. Though his initial prejudices leave him highly resistant to the idea of these "windtalkers," Sergeant Enders will eventually befriend his budding charge, leaving him to face a horrifying, incomprehensible choice, one that challenges his loyalty to the military and his most deeply-held moral beliefs.
'Windtalkers' really hurt MGM. Coming at crucial time for the ever-floundering studio, MGM had pinned all of their hopes on the success of this $100 million-plus budgeted war epic, and it failed to deliver -- both commercially and critically. Given the high-profile talent involved (including uber-action director John Woo and star Nicholas Cage), it was a real surprise that the film tanked so spectacularly, leading industry analysts to theorize just what had gone wrong. Some felt that audiences weren't interested in Native American stories, while others proposed that audiences were turned off by the idea of an ultra-violent war movie. Of course, one need look no further than 'Dances with Wolves' and 'Saving Private Ryan' to prove both prevailing theories wrong. Perhaps the true answer is the most obvious one -- 'Windtalkers' just isn't a very good movie.
It takes just the first few minutes of 'Windtalkers' to come to the sinking realization that Woo seems more interested in filming violence as balletic slow-slo exploitation than he is in telling a meaningful, coherent story. How else to explain how he and Cage could agree to such a pedestrian, borderline offensive script. John Rice and Joe Batteer's screenplay is not just cliche-ridden, but a tiresome, depressing example of pandering to the worst prejudices of the "white" audience. The Native American Yahzee character is obviously what the film is about, and its heart and soul. Yet Cage's Sgt. Enders is shoe-horned into the story, if only so we can a "white man's perspective" through which to filter the minority experience. The filmmakers seem to believe that the intended "mainstream" audience wouldn't have a narrative "entry point" otherwise, but really, what century are we in? This sort of condescending attitude is exactly what Kevin Costner chose to avoid in the his superior 'Dances with Wolves,' the war-movie equivalent of which 'Windtalkers' clearly dreamed of being.
Even more depressing is that 'Windtalkers' really could have been something. The military exploitation of the Navajo people during WWII is a rarely-discussed, very shameful story, and one that could have been examined from a modern perspective with insightful results. Instead, Woo seems to be making a big-budget snuff film. His action scenes are painfully realistic, almost orgiastic, but to what purpose? It would almost be campy, if it wasn't so off-putting. With such an undernourished story, 'Windtalkers' is merely firing blanks while pretending to be about something. Ick. If all you crave is yet more needless war-time gore, 'Windtalkers' should satisfy. Otherwise, avoid this one like a landmine.
'Windtalkers' was widely considered a superlative presentation on standard-def DVD, and this Blu-ray upgrade is even better. It appears this 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer has been minted from the same master as the 2002 DVD, but that matters little as the source is just about pristine. In fact, it may be too real. What is unusual about 'Windtalkers' is that it eschews the highly stylized, bleached-out look of recent war movies like 'Saving Private Ryan' and 'Black Hawk Down,' making it almost harder to watch the gore, as the film looks very natural and realistic.
Grain is not an issue, and colors are vibrant and clean. The deep jungle greens and wonderfully orange fleshtones particularly impress. There is still some tweaking apparent, with some blown-out whites and desaturated hues during certain sequences. The "wow factor" is definitely superior to the standard-def release, with a better sense of depth to wide shots, and more detail on close-ups. The MPEG-2 encode is also clean, with no blocking, noise or posterization apparent.
'Windtalkers' was somewhat of an aural disappointment on standard-def DVD. For such a gangbusters war film, it was surprisingly lacking in both directionality and aggressiveness, and as a result never blew you out of your couch the way you might expect. This DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 surround track offers a nice little bump, but the film's sound design still hampers it from being Blu-ray's answer to 'Saving Private Ryan.'
Surround use remains restrained. While I can accept that the surprising amount of talky bits are all front-directed, the non-action war scenes really deserved better ambiance. Happily, when the bullets and bombs begin to fly, the track finally comes alive, with discrete sounds placed with pinpoint accuracy, and seamless imaging. Technical specs are excellent across the board, with wonderfully deep low bass and a sharp clarity across the entire frequency spectrum. Only an occasional need to bump up the dialogue volume during loud scenes was a detriment.
Continuing MGM's unfortunate trend of bare-bones catalog releases, 'Windtalkers' has absolutely no supplementary features.
'Windtalkers' is just not a very good war movie, attempting a grandeur and a nobility that it fails to achieve. As for the film's Blu-ray debut, it is a sure technical success, with an excellent transfer and a fairly good soundtrack. Zippo extras, however. So unless you are a diehard war film junkie or just want a nice demo disc, this one is tough to recommend.