There is exactly one shot in Windtalkers that’s vintage John Woo: a digital butterfly flutters above a muggy stream in the Solomon Islands before the water turns bloody from the corpse of a floating soldier. If Woo feared that his signature, lyrical language of violence would compromise the authenticity of the WWII battleground, the end result here is something not unlike Randall Wallace’s equally quick-to-tire We Were Soldiers. Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down set the unfortunate standard by which Hollywood shoots and maims soldiers for public consumption. What with on-screen war now resembling a game of auteur one-upmanship, Windtalkers seems to confirm that the actual game may be less morally cumbersome than our reasons for watching. Though Woo’s pyrotechnics are undistinguishable Wallace’s, there’s no mistaking the humanity at work here. It’s difficult to accuse Windtalkers of being plagued with the kind of white man’s burden that typically trivializes multicultural warfare on film (see the smoking cigars, propelling ceiling fans and other signifiers of evil in Black Hawk Down, the generous give-the-enemy-a-girlfriend-too portions of We Were Soldiers and the emasculating Japanese culture shots of Pearl Harbor). Nonetheless, Woo’s humanity is unmistakably ham-fisted. With Steel Helmet and Big Red One, Sam Fuller tore away at the very archetypes films like Saving Private Ryan espouse. You can set your watch to Woo’s tedious battle-funeral-battle-funeral procedural and Frances O’Connor’s ridiculous “Dear Joe” narration and, while he successfully dodges many readymade archetypes, the director stages harmony as an awkward blind date between the races. Navajo code breakers must be protected from the Japanese enemy at all costs. Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage, perpetually passing a kidney stone) and Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach) meet cute, exchange post-vomit Lifesavers and negotiate racism in the ranks just in time for the we-are-the-world jam session that brings a harmonica and Navajo flute together at last.
MGM's new, three-disc director's edition of Windtalkers preserves the film's theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Flesh colors are impeccable and shadow delineation is fine but there's a noticeable amount of edge enhancement throughout. Though not necessarily distracting, it's still odd that this haloing effect is so consistently present, and it's enough to make one wonder why more attention wasn't paid to cleaning it up. The Dolby Digital 5.1 is a little on the subdued side but still exceptional. Dialogue is crystal clear but if it's the rip-roaring sound of the battle sequences that you're most interested in, the overall dynamic range may disappoint.
There are three commentary tracks available on the first disc, though you'll have to look at the DVD's box art to identify the participants. John Woo and producer Terence Chang's track is arguably the weakest of the three, as the pair doesn't provide much insight beyond the typical production hassles. Nicolas Cage and Christian Slater share their thoughts on a second track that becomes more rewarding as it moves along. A third track for Roger Willie and Navajo consultant Albert Smith is a bit more spiritual but a little on the weird side. (At one point Willie goes on at length about "Mother Nature in relation to [his] mother," drawing comparisons between the earth and the human body's birthing process.) Three stoic featurettes fill up the second disc: a thorough documentary on code talkers featuring actual veterans; a touching tribute to Navajo Code Talkers; and a mini-look at the music from the film. Disc three offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the film via a multi-view deconstruction of various scenes, four genuinely insightful fly-on-the-set scene diaries, an actor's boot camp featurette (which confirms Woo's dedication to maintaining a level of authenticity throughout the project) and a director's biography.
Windtalkers may not deserve the three-disc treatment but the sophisticated collection of features should appeal to WWII even if John Woo fanatics decide to pass.