Basis for good film is good script. If the script is deficient, it is difficult to imagine that the film would work. There are, however, exceptions to the rule and one of the most spectacular among them is Face/Off, 1997 action film directed by John Woo, known for being very successful genre piece despite having preposterous basic premise.
Protagonist, played by John Travolta, is Sam Archer, FBI agent whose life mission is to catch Castor Troy (played by Nicolas Cage), psychopathic assassin and terrorist. Archer has some very personal reasons to pursue Troy, because six years ago his young son was killed during Troy’s unsuccessful attempt on his life. Troy finally gets caught and ends in coma, but not before setting up a bomb with biological weapon that could wipe out much of Los Angeles. Troy’s brother Pollux (played by Alessandro Nivola) doesn’t want to reveal its location, so Archer’s colleagues at FBI are forced to take desperate measures that involve experimental plastic surgery. Comatose Troy is brought to secret facility where his face is taken away and transferred to Archer who, thanks to taking Troy’s physical appearance, can assume his identity. He is sent to prison where he would try to snatch information about the bomb from Pollux. The plan goes terribly wrong because Troy wakes up, calls his cohorts and forces surgeons to use the exactly same procedure to transplant Archer’s face on his. Archer soon learns that his archenemy has taken not only his identity, but also his family and career. Since nobody believes his story, Archer hasn’t got any choice than to escape from prison and using Troy’s face as cover try to infiltrate his criminal organisation.
Script by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary was originally set in near future and, as such, made more sense with face transplanting technology (that would become available in real life almost a decade after the film) being more believable. John Woo, on the other hand, by his own admission didn’t like science fiction and insisted on script being altered in order to be set in present day. Woo, known as one of most celebrated directors of Hong Kong cinema, was by mid 1990s already established in Hollywood as ultimate action genre specialist. Face/Off was film in which Woo enjoyed most creative freedom, with studios allowing him to make the film as he saw fit. In the end, plausibility of the film’s premise didn’t matter as much as the way Woo has utilised it. And he actually did it very well, in good tradition of action genre classics where the strong and well-written characters were as important as all action on the screen. In case of Face/Off Woo started with characters that were one-dimensional and cliched – dedicated public servant and family man against flamboyant and dangerous psychopath – but he made those characters interesting by having both of them playing the roles. This also allowed for two very fine actors – John Travolta and Nicolas Cage – to show their skills by playing two versions of the same character. Their work is excellent, especially in the scenes when they are trying to adapt to new circumstances and, in the process, become inadvertently seduced by the new world they are supposed to inhabit. Travolta is fine as Troy posing as Archer, when he is at first disgusted by suburban idyll of Archer’s home only to see benefits of having sex with Archer’s wife Eve (played by Joan Allen) and ogling Archer’s teenage daughter Jamie (played by Dominique Swain). Cage is even more intense as Troy, trying to remain focused on his mission while being lured by sex and drugs.
Woo is, of course, best when he directs action scenes. Here he for the first time enjoyed benefits of A-production and tens of millions of dollars are quite evident in elaborate and quite impressive scenes that feature a lot of gun play, physical combat and pyrotechnics. Woo for the first time had opportunity to direct speedboat chase and it is one of the most impressive points of his career. Woo also employs some of his trademark, including the use of Catholic imagery – one of the showdowns takes place in church and Castor Troy starts the film under the guise of a priest and flirts with women. Probably the most impressive way in which Woo mixes action and melodrama is the almost surreal scene in which the bloody and destructive gun battle is accompanied by “Somwehere over the Rainbow”, famous song from Wizard from Oz.
Although some might complain about the unrealistic premise, length that some might find a little bit excessive or some plot details that can be interpreted as misogynistic, Face/Off is very well-acted and well-directed action film that is, in many ways, the best part of Woo’s career in Hollywood.
RATING: 7/10 (+++)
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