Director John Woo (Face/Off, Mission Impossible 2) recruits his film star veterans Nicolas Cage and Christian Slater to lead a cast of soldiers in Japan during World War II. These two officers, Sergeant Joe Enders and Sergeant Pete Anderson, have the important task of protecting two important code communicators that hail from Navajo country, the young Ben Yahzee, played by Adam Beach (Smoke Signals) and Charlie Whitehorse, played by Roger Willie in his acting debut. This film is based on the true story of Navajo soldiers that relayed codes based on the Navajo language never broken by the Japanese.
Slater’s role is surprisingly anemic. The plot unfortunately devotes unnecessary time to the origin of his nickname, Ox, which doesn’t mean too much anyway and only has relevance to the actual events based on his character. Cage gets most of the meaty scenes here as Joe, the boorish veteran irreparably harmed by tragic circumstances that made him choose between duty and basic human nature. In the first third of the film, the plot follows a back and forth timeline between Joe’s military activities and Ben’s journey from his homeland to join the troops has a key communications specialist.
Frances O’Connor (A.I.) plays Nurse Rita, a role that basically provides a female interest and adds dramatic impact to Joe, and Jason Isaacs (The Patriot) has a key scene as Joe’s commanding officer. Once Joe and Ben awkwardly pair up they join their fellow soldiers Chick, played by Noah Emmerich (The Truman Show), Pappas, played by Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count on Me), Nellie, played by Brian Van Holt (The Ring) and their commander Hjelmstad, played by Peter Stormare (Minority Report, Lost World: Jurassic Park 2, Armageddon).
The plot adds personality details to the supporting soldiers such as marriage plans, breathing problems and various social backgrounds for variety and growing conflict, but sometimes seem manipulative – making the audience feel emotion when tragedy strikes him or her.
The rest of the film concentrates mainly on Joe and Ben who exhibit special abilities throughout the increasingly dangerous missions. Joe has to justify actions and once again finds himself walking that fine line between taking orders and human nature until finally erupting at his superior Hjelmstad.
In addition, tensions between the Navajo soldiers and their counterparts, especially Chick, grow increasingly strained. Sergeant Pete does get to bridge this cultural and racial gap during the breaks in action through mutual music montages with Whitehorse. “I don’t think it’s going to work,” says Whitehorse when they attempt to combine a wind instrument and harmonica into music, but, of course, they make good music together through their play and in person.
John Woo has great direction throughout the film in peace time (notice the tracking shot that flows for Joe to Ben riding on a truck) and war-time (too many well made action sequences to name). One unrealistic action scenario involving prisoners and tricky strategy with three men armed with rifles against one pistol, but it’s tiny in comparison with authentic, detailed war sequences. It looks like a few cameras were sacrificed for the great action sequences.
Some dramatic effect lessens when you twice see the red spots splash on the camera lens which remind you that you’re watching a film instead of losing yourself in the experience. Another weak point is the action sequences involving ships firing from the coast. Filmmakers tried to match their production with stock footage, but it didn’t blend very well.
It’s great to hear discussions about faith and religion. It’s realistic and unfortunately remains vacant from most current movies. The Navajo faith, rituals and practices also play an interesting part in the plot and deserve additional research and inquiry. You also get a funny, but telling view into the future of U.S. foreign relations.
This 134 minute film comes recommended (*** out of four stars) and is rated R for realistic war violence and language. I wondered why this film didn’t make more at the box office in theaters – either filmmakers mistreated one of the character’s outcomes, mostly likely Cage’s, or U.S. audiences grew weary of a barrage of war stories filling the multiplexes.
Copyright © Michael Siebenaler