(R) 2 starsEd

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(R) 2 stars

During World War II, the Japanese proved so adept at deciphering codes that the United States turned to Navajo citizens, whose language relies on complex, subtle nuances of pronunciation. Those American Indians were able to devise a method of communicating secrets that the enemy could not crack. Beginning in 1942, roughly 400 Navajo men served as code talkers and became vital parts of the war effort. Windtalkers takes this fascinating historical fact and builds a bad movie around it. Director John Woo (Mission: Impossible II, Face/Off, Broken Arrow, Hard Boiled, The Killers) combines a story packed with war movie and American Indian clichÈs and slathers his legendary operatic violence over everything. The result is a visually interesting, emotionally hollow cavalcade of hooey.

The film opens by alternating between visions of war and peace. In the Solomon Islands, Marine Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) follows orders and continues to push his soldiers forward in battle despite the fact that they are terribly outnumbered. His efforts result in serious injury to him and death to all of his men. Cut to a serene desert of the American Southwest, where Navajo friends Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach) and Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie) are recruited into the military. An impressive blood-in-river-water segue carries us from the desert to the battlefield.

Yahzee and Whitehorse are assigned to a Marine reconnaissance unit as code talkers. The deadly grim Enders and his perky buddy Ox Henderson (Christian Slater) are assigned to watch over the men, but what the newbies don"t know is that their protectors have been told that, above all else, "the code must be protected." In the event of imminent enemy capture, they are to kill the two Navajos.

Those orders, it is important to note, were invented for the movie.

And so the dance begins. Since he may have to snuff him, Enders is determined not to get close to Yahzee, but the easy-going Henderson quickly buddies up with Whitehorse, with their mutual love of music (dig those harmonica and Indian flute duets) serving as a stepping stone to friendship.

John Woo spends the bulk of the film hopping between hyped-up battle scenes and trite personal moments with the men. We meet the other guys in the squad, but actors Mark Ruffalo, Brian Van Holt, Martin Henderson, Peter Stormare and Jason Isaacs are given virtually nothing to do, while Noah Emmerich gets considerable screen time as the designated bigot, strutting about making "Injun" wisecracks. Yahzee and Whitehorse are permitted to voice their shared wish to be treated just as simple soldiers, but the film reinforces the stereotype that all Indians are exceptionally spiritual beings with a quasi-mystical connection to Mother Earth.

Will the bigot learn the error of his ways? What will be the fate of Henderson and Whitehorse? Will Enders lower his guard and become pals with Yahzee? And what of those crucial orders - will they be put to the test?

Oooh, what tension.

For the battle scenes, Woo digs into his standard bag of tricks, employing slo-mo shots of birds in flight, a sweeping over-dramatic score by James Horner, gunfire and gore galore and a phenomenal number of explosions. The choreography of the fighting is painfully obvious; it is immediately apparent in each shot which stunt man is supposed to dazzle viewers with well-rehearsed moves - a mid-air barrel roll here, a freaky head snap there. It"s all very stylish and visually engaging and annoying.

I am so sick of watching filmmakers "honor" soldiers by blowing them up creatively.

As for the characters, this is strictly the stuff of old school war movie soap operas, with the key male soldiers showing far more passion towards each other than lovers do in romance films. In this instance, Enders refuses to answer letters from the charming nurse (Frances O"Connor) who treated him after the opening battlefield debacle, but look at the passion as he stares deeply into the eyes of fellow soldiers during the dying-in-the-arms-of-his-buddy scenes.

Mind you, I am not belittling the emotional reactions. I simply find it curious that predominately heterosexual male audiences eat up this stuff in war movies while sneering at similar behavior in romance films.

But then again, maybe I just don"t understand the genre. I truly believed that Saving Private Ryan, with its ultra-realistic portrait of the battlefield, would prove an end to cheesy war-as-spectacle movies. But while honest efforts like We Were Soldiers pop up occasionally, lurid, melodramatic comic book war continues to thrive in films like Windtalkers. Go figure.

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