"Windtalkers" takes its title from a legendary group of Navajo soldiers in World War II, who mastered a secret code based on their ancient language and used it to pass vital information on the Pacific battlefront. Their code was so successful that the Japanese military never figured out how to crack it.
This is a great subject for a movie, but Hollywood has squandered the opportunity, using it as a prop for warmed-over melodrama and the kind of choreographed mayhem that director John Woo has built his career on.
What might have a stirring history lesson has become, sadly, a string of war-film clichés. Nicolas Cage plays Joe Enders, a marine sergeant who's been wounded in combat but wheedles his way back into action by cheating on a physical exam.
His new assignment is to accompany a code talker named Ben Yahzee into battle and protect him from harm.
The job is less altruistic than it sounds, since Joe is also ordered to kill Ben if there's a danger he might be captured and tortured for information.
Subplots deal with the racial prejudice of a fellow marine, the difficulty of knowing when to follow an order and when to question it, and inevitably the ill-timed romance that blooms between Joe and the attractive young officer (Frances O'Connor) who helps him get out of sick bay and back to the front.
"Windtalkers" would be a much better movie if it didn't treat its historical topics exclusively in terms of movie-style emotionalism.
Instead of critiquing the racial bias that kept American military units segregated during World War II, for instance, it plays up the exaggerated bigotry of one loudmouthed redneck whose own buddies think he's out of line.
In the end, the movie's loyalty to standard-issue formulas undermines its commitment to its own theme. The filmmakers are clearly less interested in celebrating Native American contributions to the war effort than in giving a juicy role to a bankable star.
Adam Beach turns in a gently understated performance as Ben, but he isn't a big celebrity, so Ben plays second fiddle to Joe throughout most of the story.
It doesn't help that Cage is the opposite of subtle, pulling out every acting trick he knows and playing each one to the hilt.
All of which means "Windtalkers" hails from the same dubious tradition as "Glory," which claims to commemorate the African-American soldiers of the Civil War but is really about Matthew Broderick, and "Cry Freedom," which claims to venerate South African martyr Steve Biko but is really about Kevin Kline.
It's business as usual at the studios. But this subject deserves something better.
Rated R; contains a great deal of explicit battlefield violence.