Rating *** A must see

Directed by John Woo

Written by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary

With John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Gina Gershon, Allessandro Nivola, Dominique Swain, CCH Pounder, Harve Presnell, and Nick Cassavetes.

By Patrick Z. McGavin

John Woo’s assimilation into the rigid corporate culture of Hollywood–occasioned in part by China reclaiming his native Hong Kong–has been marked by compromise and confusion. But chaos has long been Woo’s preferred idiom: in the late 80s and early 90s, he revolutionized the look, feel, and temperament of the action movie with his Hong Kong gangster films. Woo pioneered a mise-en-scene of vertiginous camera movement, delirious pacing, and a ballet of objects and people hurtling across the frame. In stretching the boundaries of physics and charting his characters’ emotional fluctuations, Woo firmly equated action with character.

In The Killer, Bullet in the Head, and Hard-Boiled, Woo amplified the emotional intensity by using wide-angle lenses and a shallow depth of field, eliminating objectivity and implicating the viewer in the mayhem. Action not only propels the plot but also deepens the characters. Focusing on loners and renegades whose motives are often conflicted, Woo employs action to explore the extremes of their fixations and attractions, their loneliness and isolation.

Woo’s Hollywood debut, Hard Target, found him hamstrung by meddlesome studio execs and a contractual obligation to deliver an R rating; Woo could neither overcome the profoundly impassive Jean-Claude Van Damme nor unleash the full power of his aesthetic. His follow-up, Broken Arrow, was far more successful: working with a better script and stronger actors, Woo used radically opposed settings, shifting from desert landscape to the compacted space of a mine shaft, and his constant camera movement created a rush of frenzied images. But if Broken Arrow marked a clear advance over Hard Target, it remained a disappointment, marking a breach between Woo’s potential and the product he turned out. Both films lacked Woo’s passion, his deep affinity for his characters. Without the solitary, existential rigor of Chow Yun-fat or the moody sensuality of Tony Leung, Hard Target and Broken Arrow became empty showcases for Woo’s formal dexterity.

Woo’s third Hollywood movie, Face/Off, is the first to balance his visual imagination with the emotional intensity of his Hong Kong films. Dark, brooding, and claustrophobic, it welds Hollywood technology and high production values to Woo’s trademark delirium; by submitting to his sense of the awesome and outrageous, Woo creates more excitement than one is likely to find in the numbing spectacles of Con Air, Speed 2, or Batman & Robin. For the first time in his Hollywood career, Woo is free to fully explore the possibilities of style and action.

Instead of Woo’s typical male bonding, Face/Off creates a primal tension between two distinct figures: Sean Archer (John Travolta) is an elite FBI agent who commands a Los Angeles-based covert antiterrorism unit; Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) is his opposite number, a nihilistic, amoral killer who snuffed Archer’s five-year-old son. Woo exploits their profound differences in a series of wonderfully staged set pieces. The first, unfolding at an LA airport, contrasts vertical and horizontal movement played out between man and machine. Archer prevents Troy’s escape by immobilizing his plane and crashing it into a hangar; cutting to the darkened interior of the hangar, Woo brackets Cage’s horizontal thrust (diving out of the plane) with Travolta’s vertical climb (accomplished by strategic use of a pulley). The action seems both spontaneous and carefully individuated.

With his taste for the extreme, Woo is able to run with a plot so outlandish it would stymie any other director. After capturing Troy, Archer learns that the terrorist has planted a chemical bomb in downtown Los Angeles. In a frantic effort to discover the bomb’s location, Archer reluctantly undergoes a radical surgical procedure in which the comatose Troy’s face is removed and grafted onto Archer’s skull. Archer’s face is left in a saline solution at the lab. After Troy emerges from his coma, he appropriates Archer’s face and kills the doctor who performed the operation. Empowered by his new “identity,” Troy traps the actual FBI agent in prison and capitalizes on his newfound authority to consolidate his criminal empire while Archer endures the sadistic guards and dehumanizing prison conditions.

Since the Reagan years, American cop movies have increasingly been predicated on moral absolutes that negate any ambiguity. Because the political imperatives are unbending, order supersedes individualism and freedom. This is one reason the genre has become so creatively depleted, though Woo tries to enliven it here. More than just a dialectic on good and evil, Face/Off turns into an ambivalent but fascinating discourse on status and role playing.

The film’s most subversive element is its frontal assault on middle-class values. The death of Archer’s son has decimated the FBI agent’s home life, leaving him emotionally withdrawn from his wife, Eve (Joan Allen), and estranged from his daughter (Dominique Swain). Troy uses the sexual tension, emotional vulnerability, and family discord to insinuate himself into their lives. In one of the film’s best moments, a tracking shot of identical tract houses and carefully maintained lawns reveals a uniformity far more restrictive than prison. For Troy, Archer’s class and privilege are a nightmare. Woo’s critique of conformity becomes even more explicit when Archer must incapacitate and even kill his guards to escape from prison. This isn’t so much a film about identity as a film about its corresponding political, material, and sexual rewards. Violence sustains the lines of demarcation between order and terror.

Redeemed by Woo’s bravura skills, Face/Off becomes more than just a genre exercise. Indeed, Woo seems to acknowledge the absurdity of the premise: he pushes the material to its perversely logical conclusion. The great fun of the movie is the interplay between the two stars, watching them play off each other’s identifiable characteristics, as the naturalistic Travolta adopts Cage’s stylized line readings. But Woo can’t completely transcend the genre; he can’t disrupt the expectations of the material or find a surprising resolution to the bizarre premise. Given the film’s brutality, its ending is both conventional and sentimental, choking off the subversive critique that precedes it. Still, Face/Off is best appreciated as John Woo’s liberation, a point he underlines near the end by restaging a shoot-out from The Killer. A dizzying, beautiful ride, Face/Off is a welcome jolt to the system.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.