In “Windtalkers” Cage’s struggle with his guilt demons dominates the promising topics of a code that was never broken...

John Woo of “Mission Impossible II” can’t get enough pirouetting, blasted bodies in flight—I felt in “Windtalkers” that I was at a showing of “Black Hawk Down” crossed with “Enigma”—in this case the special Navajo Code is as peripheral as the Enigma Code was to its own movie. This film also rivals “Saving Private Ryan” for blood and guts realism but comes nowhere near “We Were Soldiers” for caring about its characters.

In “Black Hawk” realistic warfare was the only concern; in “Windtalkers” Nicholas Cage’s struggle with his guilt demons dominates the promising topics of a code that was never broken, the integration of minorities into the culture of the army, and a sergeant, Cage, who must kill his Navajo charge if there is danger of him being captured. Unlike the recent “Enigma,” which ruins the code theme by focusing on the romance, even the romance between Cage and Frances O’Connor is marginalized to the “going-nowhere” point. Cage is so depressed (remember him in “Leaving Las Vegas”), he can’t get excited about O’Connor—that’s true depression and not fun to watch for over 2 hours.

The cliched-war-story setups are rife—on the eve of a battle, a soldier asks that his wedding ring be delivered to is wife (Do you think he survives?); the redneck bigot, who beats up on the Indian, finds his life in the Indian’s hands during battle; helping a child of the enemy brings respect; if you carry a wounded buddy out of harm’s way, you will be shot too; Americans are ace shots, rarely missing an enemy, who often comes out of the brush waiting to be shot; and on and on—the cliches are legion.

But those opening aerial shots of Monument Valley made me cry with nostalgia—I rode all around the valley on my motorcycle a few years ago. Woo has gone John Ford one better by smoothly gliding through the monoliths to create the mythic connection between the Indians and preservation of the homeland. The lens is artist here—even words can’t do it.