--Nicolas Cage, "Face/Off"
Note: In the following HD DVD joint review, John and Dean (not to be confused with Jan and Dean, who were very good in their day) provide their opinions of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.
The Movie According to John:
In the 1997 action thriller "Face/Off," 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 and then 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.
Dean will tell you a little more about the plot and characters, but I'll concentrate on some of the things I liked and disliked about the film, starting with the positives. John Woo can direct a great, 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 film 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 anyone has ever filmed.
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 protagonists and antagonists, 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, the 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 shoot-out.
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 significant loss in 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 shouldn'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. Add that to 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.
John's film rating: 7/10.
The Movie According to Dean:
"The Killer" and "Hard-Boiled" are among my favorite action films. Watching Chow-Yun Fat dive through the air with a pair of pistols is almost iconic. It was with great anticipation that I went to watch his American action film "Face/Off" featuring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. I hoped to see some of the same magic that made many of his Hong Kong films classics. Nicolas Cage is a man that is more than believable shooting a pistol, and although I was less than excited with Travolta's performance in the unimpressive "Broken Arrow," I thought the pairing was good. Sure, "Broken Arrow" took away some of my admiration for John Woo, but the film did have some undeniably good action sequences, and the trailers for "Face/Off" showed both Travolta and Cage performing pistol-packing stunts.
For me, "Face/Off" was another disappointment from John Woo, but not nearly as much as "Broken Arrow." The film lacked the strong storytelling of so many of Woo's Hong Kong classics. The "A Better Tomorrow" films, "The Killer," and "Hard Boiled" are far superior to anything Woo has crafted in America. I'm not sure if the big budgets were the problem, or if it was Woo trying to take a more "American" approach to filmmaking. Whatever it is, Woo doesn't have the same magic when financed by American studios and using American stars. "Face/Off" had an intriguing plot device in the face-changing, but it never played out as strongly as it could have, and after a while it felt stale and uninteresting. Thankfully, the gunplay that was shown so heavily in the trailers was done incredibly well, and while "Face/Off" isn't as stellar in the storytelling department as Woo's more classic pictures, at least it can rival the other titles in action and bullets.
John Woo originally intended the film to be a science-fiction adventure. However, some economic decisions were made and the screenplay was pared down to be more of a human drama, but with a little science fiction to create the film's interesting plot twist. The plot twist is simple. The antagonist slips into the protagonist's skin and visa versa. So the title "Face/Off" pertains to the fact that both stars' characters had their faces off and swapped. It also pertains to the face-off between the two characters and their attempts at using each others' identity to their own advantage. If it sounds confusing, it would be if you started to watch the film partway through. In fact, it often comes off as being more silly than captivating, and I've been about as enthused with the plot of "Face/Off" as I was with "Broken Arrow."
John Travolta is Sean Archer, an FBI agent who works to bring down international terrorists. His favorite target is Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). Troy gunned down Archer's young son a few years earlier and Archer wants nothing more than to bring down the man who caused his family so much pain and robbed him of his son. A dramatic encounter at an airport lands Castor and his brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola) in FBI captivity. Castor is hurt and put into a coma, while Pollux is sent to a high-security prison. Before Castor loses consciousness, he boasts to Archer that he has planted a bomb that will bring about massive loss of life to Los Angeles. Further evidence proves to Archer and his team that the bomb threat is very real and that Archer is going to have to find where the bomb is and diffuse it. With Castor in a coma, this proves problematic.
The world of science fiction introduces a series of surgery techniques and technology that allows Sean Archer to take on Castor Troy's identity and infiltrate the prison and find out from Pollux the location of the bomb. This requires Castor's face to be removed from his body and placed onto Archer's. Of course, Archer needs to have his face removed as well. A few other incredible technologies are involved and before long, the physically larger Sean Archer is soon an exact double for Castor Troy; even taking on his vocal attributes. Unfortunately for Archer, Troy wakes up and realizes his face is missing. He discovers Archer's and takes on the FBI agent's identity.
Castor pays himself a visit in prison and works to free Pollux from prison, but placing Archer under tight security after the two fight. Castor becomes free to take part in Archer's family and his FBI operation. Although others notice he behaves differently, not too many questions are asked. Meanwhile, Archer stages a dramatic escape as Troy and somehow lands back in Los Angeles from the oil-rig converted prison. He surrounds himself with Castor's girlfriend and those Castor formerly worked with to create havoc. Archer is also introduced to Castor's son, as it is believed Castor is Archer. Over at the Archer household, Castor has taken a liking to Archer's wife and daughter and after diffusing the bomb to appear a hero, he begins to take out his enemies and plots to bring down the man in his skin by using the FBI's force. Without going too much deeper into the thin plot, let me just say the plot is simple; it is just hard to describe because of the identity twisting of the film.
Part of the reason for the plot's silliness lies in the fact that the film is not what it was originally meant to be. This was supposed to be John Woo's big science-fiction epic. Instead, it is a character study of John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. Through portions of the film, each actor takes on the traits of the other. This makes for some fun storytelling, and both Cage and Travolta did well in portraying the other. However, by the time the film ended, these little traits were lost and the effect wasn't as effective. It was a neat premise, but it didn't play out as well as it could have. I was pulled into the performances throughout the first half, but I found the actors moving back into their own skins by the end of the film.
Regardless of how silly the plot is, "Face/Off" is a ton of fun because of the high-octane action and great gunfights. John Woo loves slow motion and stylish angles to show his action, and "Face/Off" is full of the director's trademarks. This is one of those movies where I enjoy watching it, but simply do not care much for the story. "Face/Off" would have been an incredible film with just a little plot work, but as it sits now, it is simply my favorite John Woo action movie filmed in America. Two veteran and talented actors took on a challenge and mostly met that challenge. Woo was back on top of his game when it came to style and action, but substance was lacking. Not every movie is perfect and we don't watch every movie for just the story. This is a movie where you just forget about story and relish its great action sequences. It's a fun film for a rainy Saturday night, and although I was disappointed it wasn't another "Hard Boiled," it is far better than "Broken Arrow."
Dean's film rating: 8/10.
I was pretty happy with the picture quality. The high-definition VC-1 mastering retains the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and it maintains 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.
As most of you know, the HD DVD Group requires HD DVDs to contain at least a Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack, but what kind of additional soundtracks studios provide is up to them. In this case, we get both Dolby Digital Plus EX 5.1 and DTS 6.1. I'll leave it to the individual listener to argue about which one is best, since each format will have its staunch adherents. I listened to both of them, changing back and forth throughout the movie, and found them both quite good. I listened mostly to the DD+ track, though, as it seemed slightly smoother, with the DTS also seeming slightly brighter. Both tracks are enormously dynamic, with tremendous punch, plenty of bass, and excellent surround activity. I would liked to have compared a Dolby TrueHD track as well, but the powers that be at Paramount seem determined to frustrate listeners in that department.
Disc one of this 2-Disc Special Collector's Edition HD DVD set contains the feature film and several bonus items carried over from the SD release, but this time all the graphics are in high definition. The extras begin with a pair of audio commentaries, the first with director John Woo and writers Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, and the second with the writers alone. I listened to a few minutes of each track and preferred the one with the director because of his special insights, although, to be fair, neither of them excited me much. After that, there are seven deleted scenes, about eight minutes' worth, including an alternate ending, with optional commentary. Finally, there are 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.
Disc two contains the remainder of the bonus items, also in high definition. The longest one is "The Light and the Dark: Making Face/Off," about sixty-four minutes long. It's divided into five chapters that you 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 liked 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 the documentary "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 two items in high-def, but I didn't find either of them out of the ordinary. Finally, we get a widescreen theatrical trailer to wrap things up.
Well, not quite, because as expected from Paramount, we also get pop-up menus on the HD DVD, bookmarks, a guide to elapsed time, and an HD case.
If you're an action-movie fan, it's hard to beat "Face/Off." I just wish director John Woo had shown a little more restraint 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. Woo's world moves in mysterious ways.