Movie Journal – 5/12/2012

Face/Off (1997)     4/5

Directed by John Woo (Paramount Pictures)

In Empire’s original review of Face/Off, critic Adam Smith stated that “in the end, this may be [John Woo’s] finest moment so far … which, by default, puts it in as having a strong claim on the title ‘best action movie ever made.'” Face/Off was basically Woo’s first critically and commercially lauded film in America, having established himself as one of action cinema’s greatest directors in Hong Kong (exemplified by the bloodsoaked artistry of Hard-Boiled and The Killer). The Chinese director has never been one for subtlety; his movies utilize kinetic action sequences, ironic humor, obvious symbolism, intense emotion, and ridiculous plotting to really …. well, get in your face.

Written by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, this was a script that the duo had been trying to sell for nearly a decade, and within the first ten minutes of Face/Off, it becomes obvious why. Not only is the subject matter of the film just plain weird, but some scenes are indeed, quite contrived, contrasting with the originality of the film’s basic premise. Plus, with the wrong people involved, Face/Off could’ve flopped easily. Luckily, John Woo guided a crazy idea into a near-masterpiece of action poetry, using these contrivances to unleash his full imagination, in addition to coaching quite astonishing performances by John Travolta and Nicholas Cage. The result is simply one of cinema’s greatest popcorn blockbusters.

Through a series of events that I won’t bother outlining, terrorist Castor Troy (Nicholas Cage) and FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) end up surgically switching faces, providing each actor the once-in-a-career opportunity to play …. another actor? Cage and Travolta possibly give two of the 90’s greatest performances, convincing us that under each man’s face lies the other man. They accomplish this through subtle mannerisms, changes in dialect, and courtesy to Werb and Colleary, very well-written characters. Travolta playing Cage and Cage playing Travolta is one of the film’s greatest pleasures, that which you are unlikely to find in any other movie.

What makes Face/Off impeccable is that it does not allow Woo’s incredible action sequences and set-pieces to diminish the appeal of such an interesting character story, despite a few cringe-worthy moments of cliché that advance it. But as previously mentioned, it doesn’t matter to Woo that some scenes are fodder when compared to the rest (the opening scene immediately sets the tone here); if he has something to share with his audience, whether emotionally, physically, or thematically, he will display it in the most visual way. What prevents Face/Off from reaching a higher plethora of cinema (but also increases its pulpy appeal) is this – the film is never quite sure whether it is a self-reflective play on its own ridiculousness, or just a straight-faced exercise in ridiculous. Yet this aspect of Face/Off is secondary to the many things worth commending.

Whether in an airplane hangar, a bizarre prison, a safehouse, or the film’s climactic speedboat chase, anyone unfamiliar with Woo’s work will quickly realize that he knows how to stage action like no other. He is one of few directors who uses slow-motion effectively, emphasizing moments of suspense in sequences of outrageously exciting gunplay. It’s also killer to see how well Woo translates his Hong Kong-formula to American cinema, filming in exotic locales and elaborate sets, yet still making the primary battle between two men, and their complex, thematic struggles.

Mainly, Woo questions the concept of identity; it is not until these men get under each other’s skin that they actually begin to understand each other, or better understand themselves. The face, being humanity’s primary source of identity, is also examined as a mechanism of definition; how it is used by the person in question defines whether it is a face or a mask. In the end, Face/Off may not be the greatest action movie ever made, but it did raise the bar. In essence, John Woo removed the face we have come to expect from American action films, replacing it with a flick that is unafraid to think, feel, or simply be itself.