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[rating: 2 of 4 stars]movie review by Gary Johnson

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the official web site for Face/Off

After two disappointing American efforts, Hard Target and Broken Arrow, Hong Kong director John Woo breaks loose in Face/Off and shows us his style of filmmaking--undiluted by meddlesome Hollywood producers. Face/Off overflows with action. From the set piece opening scene that sets the tone with operatic dramatics and hyper-kinetic action (and involves an airplane crashing through an airport hangar), Face/Off marks off its territory as a big summertime action blockbuster.


John Travolta and Nicolas Cage in Face/Off.

Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.)

All the action is inflated--by design--to cartoonish degrees of exaggeration. For example, when a speed boat hits a pier, it becomes airborne, twisting and spinning ominously as the camera gives us slow motion shots of John Travolta and Nicolas Cage thrown from the boat and now soaring through the air. Everything becomes frozen in slow-motion limbo as the camera lovingly lingers over the violence. Woo adopted similar approaches in many of his Hong Kong movies, where the action scenes played out as slow-motion ballets of machine gun fire and shattered glass--while the human participants leaped and dodged the explosions of shrapnel like gold-medal gymnasts. The heroes and villains slid across warehouse floors and down steep staircases, guns gripped in both hands.

Face/Off immediately adopts this same magnificently inflated and operatic attitude toward violence where all action is stylized for maximum impact. Nicolas Cage plays a sadistic terrorist named Caster Troy. As he walks to his airplane in the opening scene, his coat flaps behind him, twisting so that we can see the two guns strapped to his back. The scene announces Caster Troy as a supervillain, like a character in a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. John Travolta plays a weary FBI agent named Sean Archer. He is still mourning the death of his son, who was killed by Troy. After six years of pursing him, Archer is finally beginning to close in on his target and bring Troy to justice. Archer's clothes are rumpled, his face unshaven, while Troy dresses stylishly and grins maliciously.

Dicey-handed gunplay by Nicolas Cage.

Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.)

As in Woo's classic crime thriller The Killer, Face/Off immediately gives us a contrast between the two protagonists and then launches into a story that pulls them together and reflects their own attitudes and characteristics--so that their personalities begin to merge. However, Face/Off, to its own detriment, takes a much more literal and unfortunately goofy approach by making the merger of personalities the result of a medical operation: after Archer captures Troy, he learns of the existence of a biological weapon set to explode somewhere in the city, and therefore he undergoes an operation to remove his own face and replace it with Troy's. With Troy's face, he can then go undercover and learn the bomb's location. This patently preposterous story-line has a certain loony, comic-book charm. But rhythmically this movie is clumsy at best. Woo has designed a movie that is all set pieces. The action scenes pile up one of top of another, and in the process, the effect of any one particular scene becomes diminished.

John Travolta in Face/Off.

(©1997 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.)

Everything about this movie gets defeated by its own excesses. The characters are potentially complex but they only become concepts for complex characters. What happens, for example, when Caster Troy awakens after the surgery and goes looking for Sean Archer's family? The relationship between Troy and Archer's wife (Joan Allen) refuses to examine her reaction to her substitute husband--except on the most superficial terms. With her own husband unable to communicate with her, Troy takes over Archer's husbandly duties. But the movie only gives us the luridness of the situation, as with the potential incest involving Archer's teenage daughter. The movie ultimately becomes caught between its potential complexities and the comic-book like premise and doesn't commit in either direction. Unlike The Killer, which lets us watch as the main characters (played by Chow Yun Fat and Danny Lee) learn to trust and respect one another, Face/Off force feeds us characters who are completely good and completely bad. Part of the problem is the screenplay, which only hits the obvious points and crushes anything remotely resembling subtly. Often the movie feels like a Woo movie as when Travolta, Cage, and four other actors are caught in a huge showdown similar to the three-sided showdown in Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. We get close-ups of each participant's eyes: who will draw first? But when the movie slows down, it starts grinding gears--and at the preview screening that I saw, the audience started running for the restrooms and concession stands. When Woo isn't in overdrive, the clutch seems to be slipping.

In Face/Off, Woo struggles to reconcile the special effects laden American approach to filmmaking with his own high-octane approach. But in Face/Off, the story-line is so patently phony that only a completely cartoonish approach could save it. Woo stops halfway and gives us a bombastic movie virtually indistinguishable from the hokum of The Rock or Con Air. Coming from John Woo, that's a big disappointment.

Go to the Face/Off Web site

Go to the Paramount Web site

A Paramount Pictures Presentation


Sean ArcherJohn Travolta
Castor TroyNicolas Cage
Eve ArcherJoan Allen
SashaGina Gershon
Pollux TroyAlessandro Nivda
Jamie ArcherDominique Swain
Dietrich HasslerNick Cassavetes
Victor LazzaroHarve Presnell
Dr. Malcolm WalshColm Feore
Directed byJohn Woo
Produced byDavid Permut
Terence Chang
Christopher Godsick
Screenplay byMike Werb
Michael Colleary
Director of PhotographyOliver Wood
Production DesignerNeil Spisak
ComposerJohn Powell
EditorChristian Wagner
Costume DesignerEllen Mirojhick
Co-ProducersMike Werb
Michael Colleary
Executive ProducerMichael Douglas
Jonathan D. Krane
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