Face/off Movie Review

It's hard to remember the whooshing sighs of disappointment from his fans that greeted John Woo in 1996 when, after so many half-steps and mis-starts, he made his big Hollywood debut with the stolen-nuke thriller Broken Arrow. Having left the Hong Kong business on a high with 1992's psychotic near-parody Hard Boiled, Woo did a Jean-Claude Van Damme flick -- 1993's Hard Target, which was heavily botched by studio interference but still contained some brilliant work -- before deciding to go seriously Hollywood. For Broken Arrow, he toned down his trademark mix of ultra-violent flourishes and teary-eyed humanism to concentrate on doing a by-the-book mid-'90s action flick that was generic in the extreme but raked in the money. The next year, though, Woo proved it had all just been an extraordinarily canny maneuver to allow him to make Face/Off, possibly the greatest, and definitely the most exuberant, action film to come out of the studio system in that decade.

A schizoid doppelganger mind-bender wrapped around your standard ticking-bomb scenario (it's hidden somewhere in Los Angeles and could take out the whole basin if detonated -- or something), Face/Off is an utterly lunatic film in the best possible way. Originally a futuristic thriller, the script was retooled for a modern-day setting, keeping several of its sci-fi elements but focusing more intently on its personality-shifting aspects which seemed to come straight out of Woo's international breakthrough, The Killer. An FBI agent, Sean Archer (John Travolta) has been hunting jet-set super-criminal Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) for years. For Archer, it's gone beyond personal to haunted obsession, particularly after Troy tried to shoot Archer but missed and killed his son instead. After a gonzo opening sequence involving a Humvee/private jet showdown on a runway and about ten thousand expended rounds (mostly fired by people flying sideways in slo-mo, of course), Archer's team brings down Troy.

The hook comes after the arrest in what should be Archer's greatest success. He's convinced by his superiors of the need to infiltrate Troy's organization to find that ticking bomb, and wouldn't you know the only way Archer can do that is to have an operation that surgically grafts Troy's face onto his, leaving his own floating in a beaker. Of course, this wouldn't be that interesting if, after Archer's left with his new look, Troy didn't wake up and force the surgeon to then graft Archer's face onto the bloody mess that's left of his. So, deceptions within deceptions and spiraling cascades of mirroring result as the men take on each other's lives, with Travolta doing his best Cage impersonation and vice versa, leaving everyone around them baffled as to what's happening. As schizophrenically fascinating as all this is, it doesn't get in the way of Woo's many bravura shootouts, some of the most kinetic and balletic ever to hit screens, and even adds to them in his typical fashion. Consider the scene in which Troy and Archer face off with each other on the opposite sides of a wall of mirrors, each of them aiming a gun at their reflection, which is now actually their enemy's reflection -- considering the psychological ramifications of that shot alone could leave one in therapy for a good while.

This is not to say that Face/Off should really be taken seriously, we're in high operatic Grand Guignol territory here from the moment that Troy steps out of his limo, sunglasses on and black coat flapping bat-like in slo-mo, and he receives a wooden case containing two glittering gold guns, a pack of Chiclets and a small pile of joints. The body counts are ridiculous, with henchmen and cops falling like dominos in scene after scene, and a small war's worth of ammunition fired. The acting is on the razor's edge of cartoonish, Travolta and Cage hamming it up with delirious glee and only Joan Allen, as Archer's straight-arrow wife, playing it straight and as a result acting as the film's moral anchor. Woo consistently takes a couple steps past rational, amping up one climatic shootout by viewing it from the eyes of a child standing in the middle of the flying bullets, while "Over the Rainbow" plays on the soundtrack. There's a savage grace here, amidst all the twirling bodies, fluttering pigeons and empty shell casings, that helps carry through the characters' humanity. Face/Off resides far past the edge of sanity, and is all the better for it.

The 2007 two-disc special collector's edition contains a wealth of deleted scenes, most of which were wise cuts (including a redundant murder), though one scene in which Archer, as Troy, finds out some particularly disturbing information about his nemesis' twisted childhood, would have added some well-needed dimension to the character. There are also a number of making-of documentaries that are well-stocked with information, but it's mostly of the back-slapping Hollywood-insider variety.

Comments

Face/off Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: R, 1997

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