Since coming to Hollywood, cult director John Woo hasn’t managed to match his last (and greatest) Hong Kong achievements, “The Killer” (1989), “A Bullet in the Head” (1990) and “Hard-Boiled” (1992); his wonderfully flamboyant, operatic style remains intact, but it hasn’t been wedded to material of similar emotional weight. “Hard Target” (1993) looked great and moved well, for example, but in Jean-Claude Van Damme it had an impassive hero, and the story was threadbare. “Broken Arrow” (1996) and “Face/Off” (1997) had style to burn, but both were handicapped by scripts that were live-action cartoons–enjoyable but thin (an effect emphasized by the over-the-top turns that John Travolta contributed to both, and Nicolas Cage to the latter). And while “Mission Impossible II” (2000) clearly bore the Woo imprint, he–like Brian De Palma before him–was unable to give the rather tired super-spy material much dramatic heft, probably because producer-star Tom Cruise had so much influence over the franchise. With “Windtalkers,” however, Woo comes close to recapturing the brilliance of his Hong Kong films. The movie, which deals rather freely with the Navajo “code talkers” who were instrumental in cloaking American radio messages from Japanese decipherment during World War II, isn’t quite the equal of Woo’s best earlier work, but it’s easily his finest American film. That’s because it not only serves as a springboard for his genius at orchestrating great action sequences, but also gives him an opportunity to focus, in the same extravagantly dramatic fashion as in his Hong Kong masterpieces, on the human issues that have always been at the center of his more personal work–the mechanics of male bonding under circumstances of enormous violence and stress, and, along with it, the nature of honor and loyalty. In “The Killer” and “Hard-Boiled” these matters were dramatized through individuals on either side of the law; “Windtalkers” is more akin to “A Bullet in the Head” in being told against the backdrop of war. But while the Hong Kong film was essentially about civilian profiteers, the new picture deals with soldiers in combat; and, it must be said, the conventions of the genre make it, in the final analysis, the less successful of the two–the rather musty, John Ford-like contrivances don’t allow as much scope for the director to take the sort of imaginative leaps that he did in “Bullet.” Nonetheless “Windtalkers” is demonstrably a John Woo film in terms of its themes as well as its style, and as such it represents an advance in the American phase of his career. (Of course, some find the director’s visually hyperbolic, wildly emotional approach, which actually embraces old cliches and raises them to an almost transcendent level, disreputable in and of itself; to them the fact that “Windtalkers” embodies it so well will hardly be a point in its favor. If you’re among those dissenters, be forewarned.)

The narrative is essentially the story of four men engaged in the battle of Saipan in 1944, when American forces moving across the Pacific toward Japan invaded the heavily-fortified island. Two are new recruits, Navajo friends who have enlisted in the Marines as code talkers: idealistic, sensitive Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach) and the more bearlike Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie). Each is assigned a guardian in the squad. Yahzee’s is Joe Enders (Cage), a battle-hardened veteran barely recovered from serious injury and traumatized by his earlier combat experiences, in which he was unable to save the men of his former squadron. Whitehorse, on the other hand, is paired with Ox Henderson (Christian Slater), an extroverted, gregarious fellow. Both Enders and Henderson, however, have been given a secret order: they are to protect the code at all costs, meaning that if the man they’re guarding is in danger of being captured, they have to kill him. This key plot point may be pure invention from the historical perspective, but it certainly gives dramatic urgency to the piece by setting up precisely the sort of moral dilemma that Woo prizes. The director isn’t afraid to play up the emotional turmoil that arises from the conflict between the guardians’ military responsibilities and their disinclination to meet them at the critical moment, even when the means he employs might charitably be described as heart-on-sleeve (many will regard the sequences of Ox harmonizing on his harmonica with Charlie’s wooden flute, for instance, as going much too far, and there are lines that are almost defiantly cornball and hokey). But it’s these very old-fashioned elements that transform “Windtalkers” into a morality play focusing on the tension that develops between obedience to orders and the comradeship that naturally develops under stress of battle. It’s the sort of subject that Woo can sink his teeth into in dramatic, as well as stylistic, terms. The battle scenes are remarkable–vast, beautifully composed and stunningly photographed (Jeffrey Kimball is the D.P.), a testimony to the director’s skill in staging such set-pieces. But he also gives the more intimate moments an almost poetic feel, an effect accentuated by the high-powered performance of Cage, whom Woo encourages to italicize things (and Cage is hardly a reserved actor to begin with). Slater’s turn is much more straightforward–Henderson isn’t the tortured fellow Enders is–and from Beach and Willie what’s required is basically a kind of sweet, mystical serenity, an effect highlighted in depictions of their tribal beliefs and customs that–in all honesty–could have used a bit of the lightheartedness of “Little Big Man.” Of course, Woo has to deal with the rest of the squad, too, and it’s here that the picture falls into something perilously close to 1940s cliche, particularly in the figure of Chick (Noah Emmerich), a redneck bully who objects to the presence of “Injuns” among the troops. The other squad members are much more anonymous–even so fine a performer as Mark Ruffalo (as Pappas) gets rather lost in the crowd– except for Peter Stormare’s Sergeant Hjelmstad: the character is described as a Scandinavian immigrant, but his accent is still jarring in this context. As is normal in a film like this, there are periodic death scenes, and Woo stages them for maximum impact and plays them to the hilt; but since we haven’t gotten to know the victims as fully as we might, the effect isn’t as wrenching as it should be. From the technical perspective the picture is masterful in almost every department, save for James Horner’s score, which is oddly derivative and tends to distract from the drama rather than smoothly underlining it.

The excellence of “Windtalkers” derives quite simply from the fact that it’s representative of John Woo in much the same way as the grossly underrated “Casualties of War” (1989) is of Brian De Palma. In both cases the pictures allow their directors to demonstrate their extraordinary mastery of the medium; but each film is also highly-charged from an emotional standpoint, unafraid to employ the most extreme cinematic devices to engage the viewer on a visceral level, and each of them contributes to a theme that informs its maker’s work as a whole. (The great difference, of course, is that De Palma’s picture dramatized the tortured nature of the American Vietnam experience, while Woo’s celebrates the heroism of a much less controversial conflict.) Both films also suffer a bit from the need to incorporate the more conventional aspects of the Hollywood “war movie,” whether of the 1940s (as here) or the 1970s (as with “Casualties”). In the case of “Windtalkers,” one can rejoice that in spite of its flaws, it’s a real advance in Woo’s American oeuvre–a film that, at last, allows the director to return to the potent themes that characterized his Hong Kong films, in addition to giving ample scope to his unique skill in choreographing scenes of action and violence and creating a characteristically dreamlike, hallucinatory atmosphere. While it doesn’t reach the level of his best pictures, it’s comes quite close; and one shouldn’t allow the great to be the enemy of the good.