Face/Off (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Face/Off, the third English-language feature from acclaimed Hong Kong director John Woo, isn't the best movie of the summer, but it certainly features some of the best action. Woo, who is known and appreciated for his unique stylistic approach to violence and bloodshed, creates a kinetic ballet of bullets and explosions that drives the adrenaline level through the roof. There are problems with this film, some of which are quite obvious, but the end result is much like Woo's 1996 effort, Broken Arrow -- as long as you don't think too much, the action maelstrom will suck you into its vortex and keep you spinning for roughly two hours.

To Woo's credit, he doesn't stick strictly to action. Face/Off is only in overdrive for about two-thirds of its running length. The rest of the movie is devoted to such mundane tasks and plot exposition, character and relationship development, and ruminations on philosophical issues like identity. While there's very little of the latter (certainly not enough to turn off viewers who don't like their action leavened with anything intellectual), there is enough to give Face/Off an interesting subtext. How much of who we are is determined by our physical appearance? And, if we're given the face of another, how like that person are we likely to become? These issues aren't explored too deeply, but, to Woo's credit (and to that of the screenplay, by Mike Werb & Michael Colleary), they are addressed.

Such weighty questions are posed because the two main characters swap faces and identities. Sean Archer (John Travolta) is a dedicated federal officer whose obsession with bringing down one particular master criminal, Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), has blinded him to all other concerns. Six years ago, Troy's attempt to kill Archer went wrong, and Archer's young son was killed. Since then, a thirst for revenge has driven the FBI agent to pursue Troy with a single-minded relentlessness that has alienated both his wife (Joan Allen) and his teenage daughter (Dominique Swain). When the latest confrontation between the two leaves the criminal in a coma, Archer is forced to undergo a face transplant with Troy's features so that he can go undercover in a prison, interact with Troy's paranoid brother, Pollux (Alessandro Nivola), and learn the location of a bomb that is ticking away somewhere in downtown L.A. But, while Archer is masquerading as his arch-enemy, the real Troy regains consciousness and hijacks Archer's face.

The biggest hurdle to overcome while watching Face/Off is suspending disbelief. After all, the scenario that enables Troy and Archer to swap identities is preposterous. No matter how desperately Woo tries to make the procedure seem logically and medically feasible, it's all a little too much to swallow. In fact, a better strategy might have been to be as vague as possible about the details (such an approach was used effectively in 1992's Prelude to a Kiss). Rather than enhancing credibility, specifics damage it. Regardless, appreciating the movie as anything more than a series of flashes and bangs demands that the viewer accept, if not believe, that Troy and Archer can exchange features without showing any lingering signs of surgery or physical trauma.

There's almost too much action in Face/Off. After a while, no matter how much flair Woo invests in the project, the intensity starts to wear off and things become repetitive. At one-hundred forty minutes, the movie is probably about a half-hour too long. That said, however, there's a great deal of difference between the kind of action served up in Face/Off and what's offered by dozens of inferior features. The opening sequence is a perfect example. Woo cranks things up to a fevered pitch, choreographing everything for maximum visceral impact. Instead of just a bunch of people shooting at each other, we get a series of memorable images superimposed upon one other: Nicolas Cage emerging from a car with an unbuttoned coat billowing in the wind like a bat's wings, Handel's Messiah used to score the planting of the bomb, and a game of chicken made all the more nerve-wracking because of the manner in which it is edited. Face/Off has a helluva first reel. Then, later in the film, there's an unforgettable sequence that juxtaposes a bloodbath with Judy Garland's rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

Both John Travolta and Nicolas Cage seem to be having a lot of fun. This is Travolta's second outing with Woo (following Broken Arrow), and he appears perfectly at home. Cage, who's in the midst of an action run that started with last year's The Rock and continued in the recently-released Con Air, enjoys the opportunity to really let go, although he never completely discards subtlety in favor of passion and energy. And, since both actors have to play two wildly-different characters, there's more acting skill demanded for Face/Off than one might initially suppose. The eclectic supporting cast, which includes Joan Allen as Archer's wife, Gina Gershon as Troy's old girlfriend, Nick Cassavetes as the delightfully nasty Dietrich, and Colm Feore as Dr. Walsh, gives Cage and Travolta a group of diverse individuals to play off of.

Face/Off is primarily for hard-core action junkies and those who appreciate Woo's inimitable style. Like the director's other two Western films (Hard Target and Broken Arrow), this is a flawed and occasionally ridiculous piece of work, but there's enough here to hold just about anyone's interest, and it's almost always great fun. The movie is brash, loud, and far from the intellectual cutting-edge, but, on those occasions when Face/Off gets everything right, it's capable of moments of rare cinematic perfection. That alone makes it worth the price of admission.

Face/Off (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 2:20
U.S. Release Date: 1997-06-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1