Director John Woo was internationally renowned for his Hong Kong action films back in the Eighties and early Nineties. His favourite leading actor was Chow Yun-Fat, with whom he indisputably made his best productions, including The Killer and the seminal action movie Hard Boiled. Woo was always well known for his action prowess, and even if some of the other aspects of his productions often falter (his chosen score, character depictions, scripting and story), the films never fail to viscerally entertain. At one point he held the record for volume of explosives used in fire-fights (often 10 times the normal amount used in equivalent Western gun sequences) and it was only a matter of time before Hollywood got its claws into him. For a man who pretty-much coined the phrase “balletic gunplay” it was a shame to see his eventual Hollywood demise, particularly for fans who knew him from his previous Hong Kong masterpieces. It started with Hard Target which, although arguably Jean-Claude Van Damme's best movie, was not (except in its hard-to-find work-print cut) up to the standards of Woo. Broken Arrow followed, starring Christian Slater and John Travolta, and again - whilst being entertaining - was not as stylish, as cool or as watchable as his previous work. Woo went on to do a lacklustre Vietnam actioner Windtalkers, a stylish but vapid Mission Impossible instalment and a dire Philip K. Dick (Bladerunner) movie, Paycheck, badly casting Ben Affleck as an action hero. But amidst all of this, Woo made one outstanding Hollywood action movie, Face/Off.
Castor Troy is a gun-toting terrorist-for-hire whose maniacal plan is to destroy Los Angeles with a huge bomb. The only man who can stop him is FBI Agent Sean Archer, who lost his own son to Troy in a botched assassination attempt on Archer's life. After a violent, explosive confrontation, Archer manages to apprehend Troy - alive - but is soon required to go undercover into a maximum security prison, to find the location of the bomb. There's one problem - he has to go in disguised as Troy. And not just using good old prosthetics, this time they want to use highly advanced medical technology to remove Archer's face and graft on Troy's. It is ludicrous, but it is this plot device that fuels the interesting role-reversal offered up by the movie, as Agent Archer gets mistaken for terrorist Troy and Troy, through a twist of fate, gets to impersonate Archer. The race is on for Archer (who is now in prison, assumed to be Troy) to break out, find the bomb, and defeat hios nemesis, whi is - all the while - enjoying his newfound life as a celebrated FBI Agent, complete with loving wife and cute teenage daughter. Cue balletic gunplay galore.
“This is between you and me. Leave them out of it.”
“No, Sean, you should have left them out of it. Your son was an accident. I wanted to kill you. But, you took it so personally. Why couldn't you just kill yourself or let it go?”
Face/Off succeeds, where many other action movies fail, in combining a decent story (despite being ludicrous, you forgive the premise because of the character swapping it allows for), breathtaking, ballistic action set-pieces and some pretty damn good performances. Despite some cringe-worthy scenes (particularly the tacked-on “I'll be your new daddy” ending, but also basically anything involving the child: like the solid shootout shown - to unintentionally comedic effect - from his point-of-view) the film is captivating from start to finish, and any reservations are largely blown away by the explosive action, which never fails to entertain. And for a John Woo movie, this one is actually quite clever, relying on one central plot twist to carry the movie beyond the norm for actioners of this ilk: the character-swapping.
Which brings me to the casting. I've always been a fan of Nicolas Cage, despite the fact that his own individual, unique form of over-acting has often proven to be the only way he can give a decent performance, and the fact that he hasn't done a really good movie in years. He used to be great, but now his trademark wacky edge has become a little bit like an unintentional parody of his powerful performances in the likes of such diverse productions as the surreal David Lynch drama Wild At Heart, the zany comedy Raising Arizona and the superior action-thriller The Rock, to name but a few. Recently, he can't even keep his terrible hair in check, which is almost as consistently unconvincing as the performances he trades in. But back in the day, he was quality. And Face/Off thankfully came towards the tail-end of his better years.
John Travolta, on the other hand, may have had his stodgy periods, but he has also had more well spread-out peaks. He's excelled in a few movies across the years (his comeback hit Pulp Fiction and the Elmore Leonard-penned based Get Shorty to name two standout pieces, but, more recently, he's returned to good form with The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 remake and From Paris, With Love) and - in between - he's done plenty of lacklustre productions, like Phenomenon, Michael, and the dire Battlefield Earth (if this really was the birth of Scientology, then surely this movie would only persuade even those dumb enough to pursue it, to reconsider their 'faith'?), but Face/Off gave him a unique opportunity. As FBI Agent Sean Archer, he was just plain John Travolta, but when he switched faces to become terrorist Caster Troy, he also got to act like Nicolas Cage. It is arguably one of the most enjoyable performances of his career, and puts Nicolas Cage acting like John Travolta to shame. You see, whilst they are ostensibly just exchanging characters (Terrorist for FBI Agent and vice versa) what you are truly seeing is two actors pretending to be the stereotypes of each other, and when that involves somebody pretending to be Nicolas Cage at his zany best, the result is certainly going to be never less than entertaining.
“I don't know what I hate wearing worse: your face or your body. I mean I certainly do enjoy boning your wife, but let's face it, we both like it better the other way, yes? So why don't we trade back?”
“You can't give back what you've taken from me.”
“OK, then... plan B, why don't we just kill each other?”
The whole movie hinges on the performances that these two give (and I personally love Travolta in this flick - the concept would not have worked half as well with Sly and Arnie as the two leads, as was originally intended before Woo got on board) but there are some nice smaller character roles that are filled out interestingly, from Gina 'Bound' Gershon pouting away as Troy's sultry femme fatale girlfriend, and Dominique 'Lolita' Swain wandering around in her underwear as Archer's rebellious teenager daughter, to Joan 'Bourne sequels' Allen (slightly miscast) as Archer's neglected wife. But, as I've said, it is really all down to the two leads - in fact, arguably, even Nicolas Cage plays second fiddle when alongside John Travolta (because he's acting like Cage, of course).
Face/Off is the ultimate example of a movie that is so damn entertaining that it allows you to totally and completely suspend disbelief on what is, essentially, a ludicrous premise (it was originally intended to be more of a Sci-Fi actioner, but Woo wanted to set it in the present to focus more on the characters, which works out quite well apart from the fact that it makes it less plausible). Still, you could pick holes throughout this movie, spend your life dissecting it (as with many action films) but it is so enjoyable that you tend to forgive all the faults and just get swept up in the cross-characterisation and wicked, explosive imagination of John Woo. Peppered with some truly amazing, balletic, ballistic action scenes and two superb performances (in a way, both from the same actor!) the movie is one of those rare action movies that manages to be satisfyingly (even if not realistically) intelligent and reasonably character-driven, whilst never failing to be memorably slick explosively action-packed. It is truly thoroughly entertaining, throughout its 2+ hours runtime. And (discounting the excellent Stranglehold video-game pseudo-sequel to Hard Boiled) it also marks John Woo's only noteworthy Hollywood effort. Highly recommended.