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Some misfires are sadder than others. John Woo is a master of action and character, whether working on his own Hong Kong turf with The Killer or in America with Face/Off. And here Woo has a great World War II story to tell about Navajo soldiers recruited by the Marines to use their native language as a code the Japanese can’t break. The Marines assigned to protect these code talkers had secret orders to kill their charges if it looked like they might fall into enemy hands. From that harsh truth, screenwriters John Rice and Joe Batteer offer an often far-fetched fiction about two Marines — Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) and Ox Anderson (Christian Slater) — ordered to baby-sit Navajos Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach) and Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie). In typical Hollywood style, the story shifts from what should be its center (the Navajos) to the white man (Cage’s battle-scarred warrior), who gets to be heroic and complicated while the Navajos get to be saints. More damaging is Woo’s misguided attempt to beat Steven Spielberg at his Saving Private Ryan game. However well staged, the limb-ripping carnage at the 1944 battle of Saipan feels generic compared to the racial and cultural battles that go begging. The code talkers deserved better than a hollow tribute.

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