FACE/OFF - Blu-ray review

The action sequences are among the most intense and exhilarating you'll see in any film.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"If I didn't love you so much, I'd have to kill you."
--John Travolta, "Face/Off"

After a brief stint in the now-defunct HD DVD camp, Paramount is back with their first batch of Blu-ray releases, among them this 1997 action thriller, "Face/Off," in which director John Woo takes an incredibly silly, virtually impossible premise and despite its limitations turns it into an entertaining thrill ride. The longtime Hong Kong director of such action films as "A Better Tomorrow," "The Killer," "Bullet in the Head," and "Hard-Boiled" came to Hollywood in the early '90s and made "Hard Target" and "Broken Arrow" before turning to "Face/Off." With a sterling reputation, he could afford to exercise a little silliness. Well, OK, maybe not this much silliness, but you get the idea. With a pair of actors vying to top one another in the leading roles, the silliness, while never plausible, is at least fun.

John Travolta plays Sean Archer, the head of a covert government antiterrorist unit, who has been after his nemesis, Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), ever since the day six years earlier when Troy was responsible for killing his young son. Troy is a ruthless assassin who was aiming for Archer when he accidentally hit the boy.

The plot concerns Archer and his team capturing Troy, followed by the Agency persuading Archer to change faces with him. Yes, actually switch faces by cutting off Troy's and Archer's faces and then grafting Troy's face onto Archer's head. The reason for the face change is because the government learns that Troy has a bomb hidden somewhere in Los Angeles that could blow up half the city. If Archer can impersonate Troy, who lies near death in a coma, they can maybe learn the whereabouts of the bomb.

So, Travolta plays the good guy...and then the bad guy. And Cage plays the bad guy...and then the good guy. And then Travolta plays the good guy...and my brain hurts.

Let me tell you some of the things I liked and disliked about the film, starting with the positives. John Woo can direct a great, often balletic action scene, and the opening sequence in "Face/Off" is as exciting and graceful as they come. More stuff gets blown up and more people die in the first fifteen minutes of this movie than in half a dozen other action flicks combined. Moreover, he gets the adrenaline running without resorting to too many quick edits or close-ups but by using imaginative camera placements and concentrating on human interactions. The action sequences in "Face/Off" are among the most intense and exhilarating you'll see in any film.

In addition, Woo gets top-notch acting from his two leads--over-the-top, tour-de-force performances from each man--especially from Travolta, as the two fellows must exchange personalities as well as faces. Woo, his screenwriters, and the two stars are able to blur the traditional distinctions between protagonist and antagonist, and some of the time we can't tell which is which. It's a unique experiment in filmmaking and acting, and it comes off pretty well.

I should also mention that Woo gets good performances from his supporting players: Joan Allen as Dr. Eve Archer, the good guy's wife who is unaware of the face switch; Dominique Swain as Jamie Archer, Archer's rebellious teen daughter; Alessandro Nivola (wonderful name, by the way) as Pollux Troy, the bad guy's weaselly younger brother; and Gina Gershon as Sasha Hassler, the bad guy's former girlfriend. They lend a note of humanity to the tale and keep the movie from being merely another series of shoot-outs.

On the other hand, you have the plot. Oh, dear.... Besides its being silly, at least by the standards of today's technology, it's much too long at 140 minutes. I mean, this movie goes on and on and on, and when you think it's over, it's still not; it's got another twenty or thirty minutes to go! Woo could easily have cut a half an hour from the film with no loss of story or characterizations.

Then, too, who in their right mind would consider such a facial transformation as the one in this film, even if it were possible, and even it meant saving half of L.A.? And a microchip in the throat to duplicate another person's voice? Come on. And do we always have to have a countdown to disaster in these things? That seems so clichéd. And would the government really lock up two convict brothers in the same high-security prison as happens here, without anyone questioning it? And what are the odds of a near-dead man in a coma coming back to life and within minutes feeling better than ever? And, speaking of that, what are the odds that the police would leave a mass murderer, even one in a coma, completely unguarded? Indeed, why is there no security of any kind in an entire hospital?

Furthermore, there's the business of Archer's escape from the aforementioned high-security prison with such ease that it seems ludicrous, the things the characters getting away with defying description. And how about all those innocent cops who get blown away, some of them by the "good" guy? Woo must think we wouldn't notice such things, or maybe he thinks we wouldn't care. To say nothing of all the child-in-danger angles in the story. I assure you, the late film critic Gene Siskel would not have approved.

OK, the lapses in logic and science in "Face/Off" are monumental, yet Woo is able to get away with them by providing exactly what action fans want: namely, action, and lots of it in lithe, lively, propulsive fashion. Add to that the pleasure of watching Travolta and Cage play off one another, and you get a pretty decent thriller in spite of itself. Still, has any other actor alive been in more ridiculous action movies than Nicolas Cage? I think he's going for a record.

"Oh, well, plan B. Let's just kill each other."

When I reviewed the HD DVD of this release, I found the VC-1 video quality markedly superior to its SD DVD counterpart. Now, the Blu-ray edition virtually duplicates the HD DVD's high-definition picture in an MPEG4/AVC transfer, again retaining the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and maintaining a realistic color balance--never too dark, never too bright. I'll admit that the hues are a trifle muted most of the time and the delineation is a tad soft in spots, possibly the result of too much DNR filtering, but the overall effect looks remarkably realistic. An ultraclean screen and mostly deep black levels set off the video well. Switching back and forth between the Blu-ray's MPEG-4 and the HD DVD's VC-1 using a Panasonic BD30 and a Toshiba A35, I saw little difference between the two transfers.

As on the HD DVD, the Blu-ray disc provides high-bit-rate Dolby Digital (EX 5.1 this time, not DD+) and DTS 6.1 tracks. Just as I won't argue AVC vs. VC-1, I'll leave it to individual listeners to decide which audio format they like best, since each format will have its staunch adherents. I listened to both tracks, again changing back and forth throughout the movie, and found both of them quite good. I listened mostly to the DD track, though, as it seemed slightly fuller and more robust. Yet, for that matter, both tracks are hugely dynamic, with plenty of punch, bass, and surround activity. I would liked to have compared a Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio track as well, but the powers that be at Paramount appear determined to frustrate us in that department.

While the extras on this Blu-ray disc are the same as they are on the HD DVD edition (and again in high def), there is one big exception. The thirty-gigabyte HD DVD required the studio to use two discs, whereas the fifty-gigabyte Blu-ray holds the movie and all the extras on one disc. This is a convenience factor rather than one of improved picture or sound, so I wouldn't make much more of it than that.

Things begin with audio commentaries by director John Woo and writers Mike Werb and Michael Colleary. I enjoyed the director's special insights. After that, there are seven deleted scenes, about eight minutes' worth, including an alternate ending, with optional commentary. The longest bonus item is the documentary "The Light and the Dark: Making Face/Off," about sixty-four minutes. It's divided into five chapters that one can play individually or all at once. It covers science fiction and human emotion, the cast and crew, John Woo and Hollywood, visual effects, and a wrap-up called "Future/Past." I enjoyed the opening segment best, in which the filmmakers explain that they began with a science-fiction plot and revised it to add the human emotions that bring it home. Following that is a documentary on the director, "John Woo: A Life in Pictures," twenty-five minutes, wherein Woo narrates his own biography with the help of plenty of film clips from his early Hong Kong pictures through such Hollywood fare as "Mission: Impossible II." It pleased me to see these items in high-definition, but I didn't find them particularly out of the ordinary.

Finally, we get a widescreen theatrical trailer; a generous forty scene selections but no chapter insert; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
If you're an action-movie fan, it's hard to beat "Face/Off," significantly more so in high-definition picture and sound. I just wish director John Woo had shown a little more restraint in the mayhem department and spent a little more time in the editing room. But who am I to complain? The film did great box office, and it's probably destined to become an action classic, if it isn't already. Woo's world moves in mysterious ways.


Film Value