Face/Off (1997)

D: John Woo
S: John Travolta, Nicholas Cage, Joan Allen

Watching Face/Off is like discovering John Woo all over again. The intoxication of the blend of sincere, straight-faced moral dramatics and ultra-violent, completely over the top action is something rarely felt. Sensing on one hand that you are meant to take things very seriously, and on the other being so swept away by the sheer pleasure of well executed mayhem revitalises one's belief in the power of the cinema. It deals quite clearly, simply and effectively with themes and ideas in a way which brings them home even to the most jaded film viewers. It is a well made film: stylish, entertaining, involving and enjoyable, and it has something worthwhile to say about society, about people, and about the cinema itself. It sounds almost too much to say, but John Woo is one of the purest cineastes active today and Face/Off is one of the best action films to come out of Hollywood in the past decade.

Having been blown away by his Hong Kong films, including The Killer, Bullet in the Head and Hard Boiled (among others), many people were disappointed when his move to America produced Hard Target and Broken Arrow. Though Hard Target represented an interesting fusion of styles (and gave Jean-Claude Van Damme his classiest vehicle to date), Broken Arrow was a disappointingly ordinary Hollywood action film, almost like someone imitating Woo rather than Woo himself in action. Thankfully, gloriously, Face/Off is a remarkably 'pure' Woo film, sure to delight both fans and initiates as thoroughly as ten years before.

The plot details how hard-working cop John Travolta swaps identities with cool psychopath Nicholas Cage in order to expose a bomb plot by infiltrating Cage's organisation. He undergoes radical (really, really radical) surgery to become the other man and begins his dangerous and secret assignment. But when Cage unexpectedly escapes and pulls the same trick, eliminating all evidence of the truth, the plot thickens nicely.

As actors, Travolta and Cage surely simply couldn't resist the opportunity to play these roles. It allows both men to play hero and villain in the same movie, and lets them play at playing each other whilst playing themselves; a wonderfully complex nexus of characterisation which would have Lee Strasberg scratching his head. Cage has made a strange career move since Leaving Las Vegas into the action genre, and it has not served him well. Neither The Rock nor Con Air were terribly good films, let alone ones which provided him with an opportunity to stretch himself as a performer. In the initial stages of this movie he has a field day with his leering, smooth killer, and Woo's camera grants him an irresistible screen presence. But he gets the rather thankless task of down-playing when he assumes the Travolta persona, and though he does a good job of capturing the character's crises and nuances, he pales beside Travolta doing his rendition of the same psycho. The latter has a field day, again relishing the opportunity to be evil (he gave Broken Arrow what few thrills it had as its baddie), and with Woo's singular visual style to compensate for some obviousness in facial gestures with slow-motion and rapid cross-cutting, it becomes a ham actor's dream; playing a complex part without hard work. Instead Travolta simply has a good time and knows that he looks great doing it.

The film runs the emotional gamut, and explores the usual Woo themes of loyalty, honour, friendship, betrayal, trust, family, religion, and almost anything else you care to name. But he invokes the dramatic conventions of all action films with the deep concern of a moral film maker eager to explore the underlying metaphysics of violence in as visceral a manner as possible. He is like Sam Peckinpah, only less clinical in execution. Instead of distancing you from the action for societal comment, Woo draws you into the understandable basic emotions of quite simple characters, then runs you ragged as their lives take sudden and violent turns. Though it is tremendously violent, the film is far from immoral. It neither advocates nor condemns violence per se, but uses it as the medium through which his cineaste's eye can be turned on the crises facing human beings in ostensibly ordered societies. His focus on law enforcement automatically draws in questions of social attitudes to power and authority, and in detailing a plot by the Cage character to eliminate his competition whilst in the role of the police officer, Woo adds valid commentary on the role of the law in sustaining the status quo. Similarly in having the Travolta character encounter loyalty and friendship in the world of his rival, a neat counterpoint between the dysfunctional bourgeois nuclear family of the cop and the weirdly loving extended family of the psycho provides ample opportunity for questions to be asked which have no actual resolution in society on the whole.

Even the premise is exceedingly obvious in its concern with meaning. The exchange of identities produces some of the usual effects, but unlike many films on the subject, the characters never truly evade the mantle of their own psychology. Instead, their contrasting lives produce interesting effects upon one another, without either cop becoming psycho or psycho becoming cop (replaying some of the dynamics of The Killer). The film's metaphysical premise is best exemplified by a climactic confrontation between the two men on opposite sides of a double-sided mirror, where each looks at a reflection of himself as the other man behind which stands the man himself. Every act of violence inflicted upon their rival is inflicted upon themselves, and as the world tears itself to pieces in a hail of gunfire and a river of blood, Woo never lets go of his fundamental concerns with this kind of moral drama. It is therefore no surprise that the ending transpires in the manner it does, and though it again seems like convention, it works entirely within the framework Woo has established.

Though to me, it seems impossible to avoid these concerns and issues as raised by the filmmaker, there may be people for whom Face/Off is merely another action film. In generic terms, action fans will find themselves slap happy with adrenaline rushes every time Woo turns the screws. It is marvelously put together, and even manages to pull off the difficult trick of making a boat chase exciting (remember the climax of Patriot Games ?). The technical prowess with which the film has been assembled is then matched by its unique style, making excellent use of slow motion (from which Kathryn Bigelow could learn a few things) on one hand, and extremely fast, repetitious editing on the other to highlight the important details in each scene. Unlike many action films today, you don't find yourself confused when the action gets thick and fast, because Woo is fully aware of where we need to be and what we need to see, knowing where the important drama is being played out. And even when the backdrops are distracting (a prison, a church, a luxurious penthouse), we find ourselves thinking less about set designs and budgets as about whether or not the characters are in danger of death, a remarkable fact in and of itself.

At the end of the day, Face/Off is the best fun you're likely to have in the cinema this year, provided your stomach is up to the task. But thankfully even the Irish film censor has been able to see that the violence in this film is not exploitative, and that underlying all of this smoke and mirrors, histrionics and plot twists, is a strong, coherent statement on the nature of humanity and our concept of ourselves. It asks us to believe in what is good rather than revel in what is corrupt, but never to forget that the inner darkness which leads to violence is integral to our souls, and must be faced and dealt with rather than repressed in the hope that it will just go away. In this, Face/Off is as serious a work of cinema as any, and proves that in the hands of someone who believes in what they are doing, even the ridiculous can become sublime.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.