Courtesy Photo
Directed by John Woo

Starring John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Gina Gershon, Dominique Swain, Alessandro Nivola & Nick Cassavetes.

Link to: John Woo interview


Opened: June 27, 1997 | Rated: R

Nicholas Cage needs a new agent. His ridiculous action hero image has gotten out of hand.

"The Rock" I can let slide. It was a run-of-the-mill explosion-fest in which Cage brought nuances to his reluctant hero that made him watchable. Besides, what actor would pass up a chance to star with Sean Connery?

But early this month, he teamed again with "Rock" producer Jerry Bruckheimer for "Con Air," an unsatisfying hijacking caper cut from the same cloth as "The Rock." He's also just signed on as the next big screen Superman -- I mean, please!

In "Face/Off," his latest blunder, he shares culpability with co-star John Travolta and director John Woo. If there's any justice in the world, all three of these men should see their salaries take a nose dive for participating in such shash.

A $100 million movie with a $3 plot, "Face/Off" gets its title from the B-movie gimmick that is the hinge of the film -- FBI agent Sean Archer (Travolta) switches faces surgically with comatose terrorist Castor Troy (Cage) in order to assume his identity and go undercover. When Troy comes to without a face, he forces the doctors to give him Archer's.

Haven't these guys seen "Mission: Impossible"? They're doing wonderful things with Latex these days.

The problem here is that this drive-in fodder is beneath Woo's poetic ability to make a violent action movie look like a ballet. Apart from the gimmick, this movie offers only recycled undercover cop cliches peppered with the occasional spectacular shoot-out.

Archer (now played by Cage since they switched noggins) goes to prison as Castor Troy hoping to shake down younger brother terrorist Pollux Troy (Alessandro Nivola) for the whereabouts of a biological weapon set to devastate L.A. Meanwhile, Troy (now Travolta) wakes up, kills everyone who knew about the switch, and assumes Archer's life as a top FBI operative and suburban family man.

The story is full of the kind of holes we've come to expect from body-switching movies: Why doesn't Archer's wife (Joan Allen) recognize that everything but her husband's face is different? How does balding Troy (Cage) end up with Arhcer's full head of hair? Was that part of the operation, too? And neither actor lends the film enough dynamic to allow these thing to slide.

It's a pity because "Face/Off" starts well. After an establishing scene in which we discover Castor Troy was responsible for the death of our hero's young son, Woo crashes an exploding jet into an airport hanger and follows it with a 10-minute gun battle -- and that's just in the first reel.

This film signals a return to Woo's brand of complex, character-driven morality plays that just happen to feature enormous shoot-outs that make Rambo look like a Girl Scout. Emotions run high, but throwing money at a B-grade action script and fleshing out the characters only serves to make its weaknesses look more ridiculous.

The dialogue is the worst kind of generic pap, neither Cage nor Travolta play each other's physical mannerisms very well, and Woo recycles some of his more famous scenes from "The Killer" and other trademark films, apparently under the impression that most Americans won't recognize them.

The last half of the movie is spent with Archer trying to get his own life and face back before Troy harms his family, leading ultimately to the trademark John Woo Stand-Off -- Travolta and Cage standing face-to-face in an empty church with their heavy-duty handguns trained directly on each other's foreheads.

It's the best scene in the movie, dominated by an uncomfortably serenity and thick with a tension that has built throughout the story, but in the end it's only a reminder of what a good John Woo movie is like.

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