Ladies and gentlemen, the summer blockbuster is finally here
Has there every been a film with a title that almost makes you want to laugh at it? Well, of course there have been, but I think Face/Off beats them all. Sure, the title is awkward, but does it really matter? Absolutely not! Face/Off is full of so many radical ideas that anything it does makes sense. This is one of those films with hugely improbable concepts, but using skillful direction and taking itself slightly seriously, these concepts seem to be possible. Of course, it doesn't take itself completely seriously or it would have been ridiculous. The director, John Woo, takes the audience on a fantastic ride filled with as much action as possible, but also stopping to do something films like The Rock didn't do: it lets us into the emotional aspect of the hero and the villain.
Face/Off stars two of Hollywood's best actors. While I am not the biggest fan of Nicolas Cage, I respect him and I think he is very good. John Travolta is one of my favorites, and he gives the best line of the film. Travolta and Cage together, and you have a powerhouse cast. Add them to a Woo film, and you have a powerhouse, blockbuster film. Woo is well known in Hong Kong, and he is gaining popularity in America. He directed 1995's terrific Broken Arrow which also starred Travolta, but as a villain. In Face/Off, Travolta plays the protagonist, while Cage takes on the antagonist.
If you think the premise is a little too ridiculous, then you are greatly mistaken. It may be one you can't really believe, but it isn't preposterous. The film opens with Castor Troy (Cage) aiming his gun at Sean Archer (Travolta) who is playing with his son on a carousel. He hits Travolta, but also hits his son, killing him. The film jumps ahead six years to a long chase sequence involving, of course, Archer and Troy. Troy is slammed into a coma, but Archer finds out that Troy has hidden a giant nerve gas bomb (reminiscent of The Rock?) somewhere in the L.A. area which could kill everyone within a mile of the bomb. Troy has a genius brother, Pollux (Allesandra Nivola), who is caught and sent to prison. Unfortunately, the only person he will talk to is his brother. This sets up the first main plot twist as Archer is asked to trade places, or, in other words, trade faces.
The surgical transplant is extremely well directed and it makes you believe that it can actually be done. As Troy remains in his coma without his face, Archer, now with Troy's face and voice, is sent into the same prison to talk to his brother. This prison is highly advanced, but of course, not fool proof. While Archer is discussing the bomb's location with Pollux, Troy comes out of his coma and finds Archer's face floating in a solution. He has the surgical team put Archer's face on him, and then he kills the doctors and everyone who knew about the operation. All of this wasn't really a surprise because it's shown in the preview, but the direction of it is phenomenal. I thought I would have to turn off my brain for this film (because let's face it, it's summer), but luckily the writers were able to come up with a very original premise which allowed them to have fun with the script.
While the film does have its flaws and plot holes, the performances and power of the film are very capable of letting the audience forgive it for its mistakes. I realize that every film can't be perfect, and this film is far from it, but I almost wish they had gone into some more detail about the change of lifestyles of the two lead characters. However, the film is already long and I don't want to make it any longer. Woo knew this, and he kept it at a moderately reasonable length. Besides, it doesn't even feel very long because the pace is kept up throughout the film.
For an action film, Face/Off is one of the most impressive I have ever seen. The action sequences are breathtaking and astonishing. I look at these action pieces, and then I compare them to Batman & Robin's (which was supposed to be the real summer blockbuster) and it shows how good of a director Woo is. John Woo has his own style of directing and it is so fun to watch him do what he does. His slow motion style is used a lot, but it usually enhances the effectiveness of the scenes. It's great to be able to tell what is going on during an action sequence (which is a slap in the face of Con Air).
However, with all the chaotic action sequences, there are several things which are always interesting. The emotional level of Face/Off is remarkably higher than most other action films where the villain kills people and we don't care. Face/Off raises the stakes because we care about both the villain and the hero. We have to. The villain has taken the hero's face, and the hero is stuck with the villain's. I almost wonder if when Archer's face was replaced by Troy's if Archer didn't pick up a couple of traits from Troy. In fact, one of the most impressive sequences in the film involve Troy's ex-girlfriend (Gina Gershon) and her son, and Archer's family. Troy (Archer) finds out that his ex-girlfriend's son is his. Archer's instinct takes over and he wants to take care of the kid. His reaction is truly a great moment in the film. Archer (Troy), on the other hand, is taken to their son's grave, which of course, Troy shot at the beginning of the film. This scene also plays out remarkably well. I wanted to see Troy's reaction to this, but the film cut to a different scene and I was thoroughly disappointed.
On top of the film, however, is the cast. Travolta steals the film, even though Cage is the hero throughout most of it. Both of them together make a solid team and it played with the audience's mind because we didn't exactly know who to root for. In one of the most powerful scenes of the film, almost every cast member in the opening credits of the film has a gun pointed at them. It's reminiscient of Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and the following battle is nail-bitingly tense. Travolta gives the best line of the film during this moment, and I'm not going to spoil it by writing it here. Cage, on the other hand, doesn't quite have as much fun as Travolta does, but how can you when you are the hero? Not to be outdone are Joan Allen as Archer's wife, Eve. Allen gives a wonderful performance which is slightly overshadowed by the two top-billed stars. Gershon is just as good as Troy's ex-girlfriend. Dominique Swain gives a terrific performance as Archer's rebellious daughter, and she actually seems genuine. But Travolta and Cage dominate the film, as they do in almost any film that they are in. Oh yeah, that's Harve Presnell from Fargo as Archer's superior.
Face/Off is rated R for bloody and gruesome violence, plenty of gore (both surgical and not), some nudity from a cartoon, and language. While the film is a little predictable (who couldn't have guessed what the daughter was going to do with that knife?) the powerful performance and wonderful directing are easily able to jump over them. This is one action picture which will be sure to rake in the money, most likely from word of mouth (because, let's face it, it would have to be coming out against Hercules). I'm pretty sure I will see it again, and again. And I can't wait!
***1/2 out of ****
Reviews by Boyd Petrie