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Review: Face/Off (1997)

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Jul 1, 1997, 3:00:00 AM7/1/97

FACE/OFF (1997)

Written by Mike Werb & Michael Colleary;
Produced by David Permut, Barrie Osborne, Terence Chang
Actors: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Gina Gershon
Directed by John Woo

I had been worried about this film ever since I heard the plot.
It's PREPOSTEROUS! Who would buy into such a crazy idea without either
being confused or turned off by its ridiculous nature? Given the terribly
disappointing career in Hollywood so far for John Woo, I had enough reason
to keep a low expectation for "Face/Off." Well, I have to say I was
pleasantly surprised by the final product. The concept is still
preposterous, but everything else is quite well done.

The movie opens with an assassination attempt 6 years ago that
results in FBI agent Sean Archer's(John Travolta) little son Michael. It
becomes the driving force for Archer to pursue the worst of the worst
terrorist Castor Troy(Nicolas Cage). In a breath-taking confrontation
within the first half hour of the film, Troy is captured, but remains in a
coma. In order to dig out the secret hiding place of a time bomb set by
Troy earlier, Archer agrees, with hesitation, to switch faces with Troy to
get the information out of Troy's kid brother Poullex in jail. Well, we
know Troy would wake up and turn the table on Archer and before you know
it, the trap-setter becomes the trapped.

Naturally, Archer is in complete hell wearing his worst enemy's
face, becoming the jailed criminal, knowing Troy is now FBI official and
his wife's husband. He does manage to escape the maximum security
facility and we anticipate an explosive showdown between these two men. I
was not disappointed.

Many details in the plot is very far-fetched and illogical. The
concept of face-switching is medically IMPOSSIBLE. Travolta and Cage have
very different body characteristics which should be easily spotted by
Archer's wife (Joan Allen). There is no way for Troy to know the daily
routine work of FBI and fool all his associates. Thankfully, the surgical
procedure of ripping off one face and putting it onto another person is
done as vaguely as possible to avoid being too silly. Surprisingly, the
flow of the movie does not stumble over the vast implausibility due to the
gripping performances from Travolta and Cage, who sucessfully imitate each
other's characteristics in acting within the context of the story. The
audience are caught in concerns for the characters and thus are willing to
forgive the holes in the plot.

Contrast to almost every big-budget action movie in recent years,
"Face/Off" spends numerous quiet moments to develop the story and dig the
characters minds, especially the frustration and fear in Archer that not
only he's wearing Troy's face, but he's slowly becoming Troy inside too.
The characters are interesting because they are not rushed from one fight
scenes from another. Many small aspects of the film are not treated with
the simplistic formulas. Archer's family problems, Troy's family
problems, honorable thieves and crooked law enforcement, evil thieves
and good law enforcement, Archer's love for his wife, Troy's affection for
his kid brother, and the tangled relationship among Troy's ex-girlfriend
(played by Gina Gershon), her brother and her small son. The emotional
drama feels realistic without the cheesiness and stupidity of "Con Air".
The movie is full of small details that reveal the inner conflicts and
motivations of the characters. Cool and neat.

Credit to the writers Werb and Colleary, the romance of two weary
adults, Archer and his wife Eve, is presented with maturity and delicate
balance. Joan Allen has provided the anchor of sanity to save the film
from going 'way over the top and successfully reduced the sense of
disbelief and ridiculousness in the audience. Travolta tends to overact a
little in Troy's role and makes his character more cartoonish than scary,
but the occasional flicks of goodness in him rings true and believable.
Cage is refreshing and thoroughly enjoyable as the bad guy in the first
half hour of the movie and is reasonably vulnerable and strong as the
trapped Archer.

While the drama of "Face/Off" is intriguing, the action sequences
are absolutely first-rate (except for the fist fight at the very end) and
stomach turning. The first airplance chasing scene and the last boat
chasing scene are textbook perfection in action filmmaking, while the
church confrontation is most poetic and reminds me the most of the
passionate, sentimental and heart-wrecking films John Woo had done in Hong
Kong. Although gunfight scenes are abundant in this movie, I don't feel
excessiveness as I did watching "Hard-Boiled" because they are nicely
paced with quiet moments and human interactions. The characters and
emotional intensity in the action scenes make them engaging and
meaningful. The master demonstrates *how* a real action movie should be
done with passions and fury and pain. It's not all about how balletic the
actors move with 2 guns in hand, but more about the rage and hurt and
passion and motives of the players involved.

On a last note, I realized recently that the multiple Mexican
standoff can be dated back to the days of 20's and 30's pulp detective
stories, for it is repeatedly used in every other short story by Raymond
Chandler. I'll be damned if Werb and Colleary never read Chandler and
borrowed more than a little spirit from his passionate, sentimental and
violent tales.

"Face/Off" runs 2 hours and 10 minutes, which does not feel long
at all, at least to me. In fact I didn't want the film to end. Again, it
proves that realistic characters and human emotions can override
implausibility in plot devices. Maybe I can finally say John Woo has made
the transition to Hollywood. Although American audience may not be ready
to accept his ideals and moral obsession with male bonding, friendship and
love, loyalty and betray themes derived from Chinese chivalry stories, he
still can successfully incorporate his uniquely imaginative and innovative
style with Hollywood good screenplays. Welcome back.

It's a wild ride. I give it a B.


Michael Legeros

Jul 2, 1997, 3:00:00 AM7/2/97

Face/Off (1997)

A movie review by Michael J. Legeros
Copyright 1997 by Michael J. Legeros

Directed by John Woo
Written by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary
Cast John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Gina Gershon,
Alessandro Nivola, Dominique Swain, Nick Cassavetes,
Harve Presnell, Colm Feore, Margaret Cho
MPAA Rating "R" (presumably for violence and language)
Running Time 140 minutes
Reviewed at Carmike 7 Cinemas, Raleigh, NC (27JUN97)


Dis/appointing. The talkiest thrill-ride of the summer stars John
Travolta and Nicholas Cage, as two guys who swap faces. Literally.
Cage plays a terrorist and Travolta plays a terrorist tracker and each
ends up with the other's face, and identity, through a series of events
that writers Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, along with director John
Woo (BROKEN ARROW, HARD TARGET), take great pains to make believable.
They explain the entire medical process and how the facial skin is re-
moved and what's done about scars, hair lines, and body fat. Surpris-
ingly, this premise-- set in the near-future, if that helps-- is one of
the more *plausible* components of the movie. It's so utterly over-the-
top that it blends perfectly with the accompanying action, Action a la
Woo, a gracefully choreographed carnival of all things flinging, flying,
shooting, and exploding. What's much more *difficult* to believe are
the smaller, subsequent story details, ranging from the circumstances
surrounding a character's heart attack to a wife who fails to notice a
scar that her husband no longer has. (Not to mention other physical
differences that are never, ah, expanded upon!)

Those only familiar with the John Woo of BROKEN ARROW are in for a
treat, as the world-renowned director is almost back to his old self. I
say, I say, *almost*. He's returned to the world of Grand Guignol, but
without enough lighting! Three, maybe, four sequences are damn diffi-
cult to follow, shot for shot. (From what I recall of his more-recent
HARD TARGET and HARD BOILED, the photography was much... cleaner.)
Worse, there isn't *enough* action to keep these pulpy characters in-
teresting. (At least an hour passes without any gun battles, which is a
l-o-n-g time to spend with Cage's good guy, all stooped shoulders and
stupored stares.) That said, there's still enough here to satisfy most
moviegoers. The surgery sequence is an armrest gripper. The body count
is refreshingly high. Travolta is wicked fun playing Cage's character
playing Travolta's. Olivia Newton-John sings "Over the Rainbow." And
two late sequences-- a Mexican standoff in a church (complete with flut-
tering white doves) and a high-speed powerboat chase (is there any other
kind?)-- bring everything home. For those fast, furious, fleeting
moments, it's why we go to the movies. (Rated "R"/140 min.)

Grade: B

Mike Legeros - Movie Hell

Mike Legeros
Corporate Training
SAS Institute Inc, Cary, NC, USA, Earth
mailto: (w) (h)
"Fortissimo at last!" - Gustav Mahler, on seeing Niagara Falls

Michael Legeros

Jul 2, 1997, 3:00:00 AM7/2/97

Steve Kong

Jul 2, 1997, 3:00:00 AM7/2/97

Just when you're sick of those stupid, loud and dumb summer action movies,
there comes one that proves that not all summer action movies are the same.
The film is Face/Off, and it is directed by, the world acclaimed action
director, John Woo.

I've admired John Woo mainly for his two Hong Kong works Hard Boiled and
The Killer. After I seen those two movies I was convinced that Woo was the
ultimate action movie director. As much as I liked those films though, none
of his American films have yet to spawn such admiration, until now. Hard
Target was entertaining, but didn't feel like it was an actual Woo movie.
Broken Arrow was better than Hard Target, but it still did not have that
Woo touch.

What is the Woo touch? In most action movies you'll find an infallible
unfeeling hero who is nothing but good. Then you'll find his adversary, the
evil bug-eyed crazed madman. A simple game of good versus bad, no in
between, no real character development. And, for most summer movies goers,
character development is not a strong point for the movie. But, as more
summers roll around, the worst films have become in even creating some
character development. The explanation for this is simple, not having
character development can allow for two hours full of action. What Woo does
is create a movie that is full of action but includes characters that are
fully fleshed out. His films have characters that think, feel, and are not
afraid to cry. The themes that he works with are still of good versus bad,
but he takes that theme to a new level. The characters are labelled as good
and bad, but it's a matter of perception on who is good and who is bad.

The other thing that Woo does is choreographing action scenes like nothing
else. Many try to copy his style, but none have achieved it. His action
scenes are as most put it like a ballad. And are hard to describe unless
they are seen.
Face/Off is one of Woo's most Hong Kong films yet. After the success of his
last film, Broken Arrow, he must have got more creative control over
Face/Off. Most noticeable is that the two characters, though tagged good
and bad, are not what they seem. And a third of the way into the film, they
truly are not who they seem.

Sean Archer (John Travolta) is a FBI agent that has been chasing a
terrorist, Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), for many years now. Archer is
obsessed with catching Castor. This obsession stems from Castor
accidentally killing Archer's son. As Castor is leaving L.A. Archer gets
his chance to capture him. But, instead of capturing Castor, in a large and
violent gunfight, Castor is put into coma and his brother, Pollox, is put
into prison. What Archer finds out is that Castor and Pollox have planted a
large bomb somewhere in L.A., and it is ready to go off soon. Pollox is a
paranoid delusional man and will not talk to anyone else about the location
of the bomb but his brother. The only way to get Pollox to talk is to have
Castor talk to him. Castor being in a deep coma is a problem though. The
solution, this sounds strange, but works in the movie, is to take Castor's
face and plant in on Archer. Archer is unwilling to do it at first, but
agrees to do it after some convincing. Archer takes Castor's face and is
altered to sound and look like Castor, and is sent into prison to try to
fine out the location of the bomb from Pollox. While Archer is in jail
talking to Pollox, Castor wakes up from his coma and wants a face.
Obviously, Castor takes the only face that he can find, Archer's. Castor
kills everyone that knows about the plan to put Castor's face on Archer.

This twist gives John Woo the freedom to explore the theme of good versus
bad. Are you truly what you are inside? Or is it the looks? Or is it the
reputation? And what can you get away with while looking like someone else,
who is good or bad? This leads to both Archer and Castor to re-evaluate who
they really are, and what they believe in. That's a lot of drama for an
action film, but it does not bog it down a bit.

Archer, with Castor's face escapes prison and wants to put back together
his life. It is hard for Archer, who has to deal with the people that he
fought so hard against. He begins to see that the other side is not so bad
at heart, and softens up a bit.

John Travolta gives a solid performance as both Archer and Castor. But, it
is really Nicolas Cage who carries the film. Cage's performance as Castor
is, to say the least, maniacal. When he switches over to portraying Archer,
he completely changes his performance and calms everything down. Travolta,
though solid, does not give that feeling, throughout the movie, that he's
really someone else. His performance feels as if he were himself all the
time. But there are times when Travolta just unleashes, and those are his
stand out moments. The switching of faces also allows for both actors to
poke fun at themselves, including Travolta, as Castor, saying to Pollox,
"This nose, this hair, this ridiculous chin!"

Woo fills this film up with imagery that is very powerful. One that remains
in my mind is that of Castor getting out of his car, and his coat blowing
in the wind. Once you see it, you'll be entranced by how powerful that one
short sequence is. This imagery goes further into the action sequences. Woo
uses quick cuts and odd camera angles to capture the action and the
urgency. What Woo does not resort to, and what most new action directors
over use, is the unnecessary camera jiggling and shaking. Woo captures all
of the action in without having to use such a technique. This technique
usually disorients and makes sick more than it does capture the feel of an
action film. Woo is one of the last true directors that knows how to make a
real action movie. So, if you're sick of walking into another theatre
dreading the feeling that you'll just be treated to a loud and dumb action
film, don't do it. Go see Face/Off, which proves that an action film just
doesn't have to be loud and dumb, it can have a story and characters that
you'll care for. The violence is over the top, but is done so well that it
is almost poetic. If this is the first film of John Woo's that you've seen,
you'll find it amazing. If you're recovering from his last two American
outings, you'll be glad to hear that this film is right on track with his
Hong Kong films.

steve kong
spy on me at:

Michael Redman

Jul 2, 1997, 3:00:00 AM7/2/97

A Film Review By Michael Redman
Copyright 1997 Michael Redman

***1/2 (out of ****)

Nicolas Cage is on an action film roll. Following the dynamic but flawed
Con Air by just a few weeks, "Face/Off" pulls out all the stops for over
two hours of non-stop intensity. Director John Woo ("Broken Arrow" and many
Hong Kong high-action films) doesn't give the audience a minute to catch their breath.

FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) has spent years of his career hunting
Castor Troy (Cage) after the criminal accidentally killed Archer's young son
while attempting to kill the agent. In a blinding episode of a blaze of
bullets, an airplane crash and more blood than you'd see in an ER; the
criminal is captured and in a coma. It's time for celebration, or so they think.

It turns out that there's a megabomb hidden somewhere and the only person who
know its location is Troy's psychotic brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola). In
order to get the information, Archer undergoes a science-fictiony transplant
of Troy's face.

While the lawman is in a secret high security prison as Troy, the real
criminal mastermind awakens from his coma literally faceless. Finding Archer's
face floating in a jar, he forces the surgeon to attach it to him and then
burns the lab and everyone who knows about the operation. This leaves no
evidence as to who's actually who.

Archer (now Cage) is stuck in lock-up while Troy (now Travolta) is taking his
place in his job and at his home with his wife (Joan Allen). When the
agent-who-looks-like-the-criminal inevitably breaks out, he becomes the
desperado with his cronies and his babe-with-a-gun (Gina Gershon).

It is to Woo's credit that the movie is as easy to follow as it is. The two
actors are also responsible for masterful work. Not only does each have to
play his character, he has to play his character playing the other man. Even
more difficult, each has to imitate the other actor. Cage and Travolta are
both wonders at this, but it is Travolta who has the meatier role. With
Archer's face, he is the FBI agent but with Troy's personality, even capturing
some of Cage's acting quirks. When he no longer has to masquerade as Archer,
but still with his face, Travolta's sneers and whoops are a delight.

Although movies of this genre very rarely pick up Oscars, Travolta certainly
deserves one. In a difficult role, the former sweathog gets a chance to strut
his stuff.

Climbing into each other's life is a study in shadows for the two men. Troy is
obviously touched at the graveside of Archer's son. Archer becomes attached to
Troy's young son. Each man is the shadow of the other: they are more alike
than they would want to admit. In one scene, wearing each other's likeness
they stand on opposite sides of a mirror aiming their guns at themselves but
as images of their enemies. If not for the other, they would only be half a person.

Woo's signature style is in full bloom. Blood splatters everywhere, bodies
fall like flies, Troy is blown down a tunnel by a jet engine, Archer escapes
from a police copter by diving hundreds of feet into the ocean. There are more
bullets in this film than are fired in a major military battle. Oddly enough
for two men who live by the gun, thousands of shots fired at each other fail
to find their targets.

"Face/Off" looks to be the best action this summer. There may be
better films, but it's difficult to imagine any more thrilling.

[This appeared in the 7/3/97 "Bloomington Voice", Bloomington, Indiana.
Michael Redman can be reached at ]


Chris Webb

Jul 3, 1997, 3:00:00 AM7/3/97

I often argue that the terms movie and film come under different
definitions. A movie is an enjoyable theater experience that creates
memorable characters. A film is made for artistic purposes with qualities
in the behind-the-scenes areas taking the forefront. Not since Fargo has there
been such a good movie/film. In fact this is the best one since Fargo.

Unfortunately, it is not often that a movie qualifying as an action
picture will even be given a second look for Oscar contention. Face/Off
deserves such attention. John Woo is a technical wizard on this picture with
an almost surreal opening in which a child gets shot. Then, toward the middle
of the film, we witness a shootout through a child's eyes as he listens to
"Over the Rainbow" on a headset. It is truly a spectacular moment that you
will remember.

The drama and charcter development are established in this film
pushing it beyond the limits of Eraser or Con Air. Nicolas Cage plays Castor
Troy, a homicidal maniac, who killed Sean Asher's (John Travolta) child while
the latter two were riding a merry-go-round. We then move to six years later
as Troy plots to demolish Los Angeles in a cold-blooded bombing. In order
to diffuse the bomb, Asher is coaxed into trading faces with Troy, who is in
a coma. This top secret mission, however, heads down the wrong path. Troy
wakes up and forces Asher's face to be transplanted onto himself.

From there, plot shifts abound as suddenly Cage is playing the
kind-hearted guy and Travolta the dispicable one. Cage illuminates the
screen as he watches the evil Asher (Troy) gain credit for saving the city.
The real Asher is helpless and now he must save his well-being by getting

Joan Allen (Nixon, The Crucible) magnificently portrays the third of
a series of tortured wives. The depths that John Woo has extended the action
genre into amazes. A shootout in a church toward the end works the viewer
into a frenzy, but the film still is not over.

It runs an enjoyable and quick two hours and ten minutes. And is
truly worthy of highest honors. Cage deserves an actor nod since he had
to create the bad guy and then earn back our sympathies as the good guy.
Cage's work let Travolta off easy, though he was spectacular as well. The
direction was top-notch, and its easily the best picture since Fargo.

Maybe the academy will take notice of this intelligent and
ground-breaking film. It isn't often that I do this, but the film was
extremely impressive.


Chris Webb '99 Box 1416

Walter Frith

Jul 4, 1997, 3:00:00 AM7/4/97


A movie review by Walter Frith

Face off. It refers in many ways to two rival parties squaring off in
competition. In this latest film from internationally acclaimed action
director John Woo, the title is literate. John Travolta plays an FBI man who
assumes the identity of a terrorist he's captured (Nicolas Cage) in order to
get inside Cage's band of criminals by going undercover to prison to find the
location of a biological explosive set to go off somewhere in the Los Angeles

The procedure in which Travolta assumes Cage's identity is quite
unusual. Cage is in a coma after being captured and his face is cut off with
lasers and is placed over Travolta's face and the only problem is that
Travolta's face has to come off as well and Cage awakes from his coma in the
hospital and calls upon his goons to force the doctor who performed the
surgery on Travolta to do the same on him using Travolta's face. Travolta is
caught in a nightmare to say the least as he's now locked in to Cage's
identity and must remain in prison with no chance of reversal since the team
who performed the surgery is murdered by Cage. Cage assumes the life
Travolta had which includes a promotion within the FBI and the pleasures of
Travolta's home life including a relationship with his wife (Joan Allen).

This is a high-tech, original and slick minded action picture that has
both leading men in fine form and Cage is a treat to watch as the bad guy and
Travolta has Cage's mannerisms and style of presence down to a tee once he
assumes his identity. It's a confusing parody to discuss and it's a little
bit like that old Abbott and Costello joke about who's on first. When you
talk about the movie it's hard to distinguish between the two actors in the
reversal of roles and director John Woo has a knack for making action films
much more meaningful by utilizing the academics of craftsmanship from his
actors. Even a terrible actor like Jean-Claude Van Damme came across well in
Woo's 'Hard Target' from 1993. 'Face-Off' suffers only from over length and
a screenplay that could have resolved things better in the end but with so
much to please the senses on the screen, these things seem innocuous.

OUT OF 5> * * * *

Mark R Leeper

Jul 8, 1997, 3:00:00 AM7/8/97

A film review by Mark R. Leeper

Capsule: Nicholas Cage and John Travolta have
to exchange personalities as well as bodies while
trying to kill each other. Two tired plot elements
show surprising new life in a thriller that
combines the hunt for a brilliant sociopath with a
body switch. The result is a thriller with at
least a little intelligence behind it. Director
John Woo could improve the film by toning down the
action scenes, and he does not always show the best
of taste in his stylistic choices. But for once
his film has more going for it than action.
Certainly FACE/OFF is a step in the right direction
for Woo. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4), 7 (0 to 10)

When I grew up noodle soup was a lot of broth and only a little
bit of noodles. Then on the market from East Asia came ramen which was
mostly noodles. The marketers of this product acknowledged that many
people bought noodle soup for the noodles so they made that most of the
soup. When I grew up an action film was something like THE GUNS OF
NAVARONE. It had a good story and some action sequences. Unhappily
much of the audience really was watching the film for the action
sequences and the plot just bound them together, but at least it was
there for those who wanted it. The Hong Kong action film formula
delivers action the way ramen delivers noodles. It gives you more
action than plot. Part of the formula is to turn the drama to
melodrama. Melodrama allows for more dramatic moments in a shorter
space of time, leaving more time to devote to action sequences. Then
the action sequences go off like a strings of firecrackers on Chinese
New Year. Turning the story to melodrama and increasing the pace of
the fireworks destroys much of the credibility of a film, but it gives
the audience what it wants. That is the Hong Kong action film formula
and one of its leading proponents is John Woo. But Woo has been lured
to Hollywood and he has had to compromise his style a bit. He has
toned down the melodrama making for a longer story to tell. He has cut
down the proportion of action scenes while lengthening the film.
FACE/OFF is a long film at 138 minutes, it spends less time with action
sequences than his earlier films, but he uses the extra time to tell a
more dramatically satisfying story with a more engaging premise.

In action films we have had more than our share of films of law
agents stalking psychopathic killers. And a few seasons back we also
had in a short time a lot of films with people switching bodies and
having to live as the other person. Combining the two ideas does not
sound like a promising idea, but it makes for a much more interesting
piece dramatically than most of Woo's films. Castor and Pollux Troy
(played respectively by Nicholas Cage and Alessandro Nivola) are
brother sociopaths who have little in common with their namesakes, the
Dioscuri who accompanied Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece.
Castor is a super- extrovert (and obnoxious) criminal genius. Six
years earlier he nearly killed FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta)
and did kill Archer's young son. The ruthless and narcissistic killer
has been pitted against stiff and introverted FBI agent for several
years, and finally Archer manages to kill Castor Troy. However, the
government knows that Castor and Pollux have set a bomb to destroy Los
Angeles and Pollux refuses to talk. Then Archer finds out that Castor
is still alive, albeit comatose, and that a new process can transform
Archer to look like Castor. It is suggested that Archer become Castor
and perhaps trick information from Pollux Troy. Of course Castor wakes
from his coma, finds out what has happened and forces the doctors to
transform him to look like Archer. The logic (or lack of logic) in
this scene is one of the low-points of the film. But to fool people
Castor and Archer each has to take on the other's mannerisms. The
introvert must force himself to be an extrovert, the extrovert ... well
that would be telling. Each must get involved with the family or
friends of the other, and gets a better understanding of the enemy.
Loyalties become confused. Many things are happening at different
levels in this film and Woo manages to keep things together.

John Woo's anything goes Hong Kong style just does not really work
all the time. There is a somewhat questionable sequence in with a
child's home is shot up and a child is very nearly killed all done to
the tune of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." The scene may well have been
inspired by the brilliant "Danny Boy" sequence in MILLER'S CROSSING,
but here it is too easy to construe it as making light of child
endangerment. It indicates that Woo, like some of his characters, is
not always in full control of his talents. And in this scene, like
most of Woo's action scenes, the violence is turned up to a degree far
beyond any realism and all subtlety is lost. When Woo is finished with
a set for one of his action scenes it is pretty well shredded. Other
places he has more control such as well-choreographed sequence in which
FBI agents try to stop a plane from taking off. The opening sequence
is a nightmarish flashback showing a good deal of atmosphere.

Woo goes neither for drama nor his usual melodrama, but something
somewhere in between. He has good actors in Travolta and Cage and more
than his other films he needs them as each goes through layers of the
others personality. Nancy Allen plays Archer's wife, for once an
intelligently drawn character. Allen is a two-time Oscar nominee for
her roles in THE CRUCIBLE and as Pat Nixon in NIXON. In a role that
other filmmakers might have minimized, she holds her own. Gina Gershon
also plays well in a sympathetic role as a close friend of Castor.

John Woo is showing signs of maturing as a filmmaker. While he
still is a fan a large scale destruction scenes, he has shown he can
make a film with a little more to it. I rate this film a +2 on the -4
to +4 scale.

Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 1997 Mark R. Leeper

Scott Renshaw

Jul 8, 1997, 3:00:00 AM7/8/97

Starring: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Alessandro Nivola.
Screenplay: Mike Webb and Michael Colleary.
Producers: David Permut, Terence Chang, Christopher Godsick, Barrie M.
Director: John Woo.
MPAA Rating: R (violence, profanity, adult themes)
Running Time: 135 minutes.
Reviewed by Scott Renshaw.

In John Woo's FACE/OFF, two men exchange faces. They don't wear
masks of one another or impersonate one another -- they actually,
physically exchange faces. Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) is an infamous
international terrorist; Sean Archer (John Travolta) is a Federal
anti-terrorist agent who has been obsessed with Castor for six years since
Castor was responsible for the death of Archer's young son. After Castor
is rendered comatose during his capture, Archer learns that Castor has
left a bomb filled with nerve gas somewhere in Los Angeles. Only Castor's
imprisoned, paranoid brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola) also knows the
bomb's location, leading Archer to submit to a radical procedure: he will
have his own faced surgically replaced by Castor Troy's, then go into
prison to get information from Pollux. The problems begin when Castor
wakes up, and takes on Archer's face while destroying all evidence of the

The premise is, of course, absolutely ridiculous. It also is
absolutely brilliant, and incredibly subversive. Hollywood film-making is
built around the idea of the star, around the idea that the audience is
always and automatically on the side of the star. It's not necessary to
write an interesting character for Arnold Schwarzenegger, because the
people in the audience aren't expected to be rooting for the character.
They're rooting for Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor, the star.

FACE/OFF, ridiculous though its premise might be, demands the
creation of compelling characters. For the first forty minutes, John
Travolta plays Sean Archer, the tormented hero who has the audience's
sympathy. Then comes the switch, and suddenly Nicolas Cage is playing
Sean Archer. The only way viewers can transfer their allegiance is if
they spent the first forty minutes rooting for Sean Archer, not John

To make FACE/OFF work, director John Woo had to hand Mike Webb and
Michael Colleary's sharp script to a couple of movie stars who could act,
who could transcend persona for the demands of a dual role. Both Travolta
and Cage are in fine form in FACE/OFF, tearing up scenery with eye-popping
relish when playing Castor or seething with intensity as Archer. Of the
two, Cage has the greater challenge, and pulls off the more impressive
transformation. His Castor Troy is flamboyant, lusty and brutal, the
perfect action villain; his Sean Archer faces the agony of becoming the
man who ruined his life. Travolta, meanwhile, proves that an action film
with thematic depth can still be a whole lot of fun, riffing on Cage's
manic acting style and offering self-deprecating observations about his
own "ridiculous chin." Woo delivers the kind of surging action summer
movie-goers have come to expect, while adding touches they probably don't
expect: evocative musical interludes, confident pacing and -- wonder of
wonders -- an actual script.

FACE/OFF only really loses its way late in the film, when an
apparently climactic showdown between Archer and Troy in a church instead
turns into a speedboat chase chock-a-block with explosions. Woo has
always loved his action on a grand scale -- grand opera, actually -- but
the final ten minutes of FACE/OFF are just a bit much, especially at the
tail end of 135 minutes of running time. Perhaps Woo, who built a loyal
following by filling his Hong Kong action films with stories of guilt,
family ties and redemption, was so excited to be making this kind of film
in America that he just didn't want it to end. He certainly pulls of a
neat trick in FACE/OFF, investing a conventional genre with unconventional
resonance. He also challenges the star system of 1990s Hollywood with the
revolutionary notion that an audience can invest itself emotionally in
the characters in the story, not just the names above the title.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 about faces: 8.

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"'Elitist' [is] a word _meaningless_ in a profession that tries to seek
out and spotlight the best. 'Elite' is from the Old French root eslire,
to choose, and choosing is what a critic does for a living. Calling a
critic 'elitist' is like calling an accountant 'mathist.'"
--Richard Von Busack

Ram Samudrala

Jul 9, 1997, 3:00:00 AM7/9/97

A film review by Ram Samudrala

What would happen if you were a law enforcement officer and you woke
up one day, found yourself in prison with the face of your arch enemy?
Compound this with the situation where your arch enemy has your face
and is living your life. This is the quandary that John Travolta
faces as FBI Agent Sean Archer in John Woo's latest thriller,

After six years of dedicated work, Archer finally manages to capture
Castor Troy, one of the most dangerous (and charismatic) criminals the
world has known, and also the murderer of Archer's young son. He then
agrees to take on the face of Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), in an
attempt to gain the confidence of Pollux Troy (Alessandro Nivola) and
figure out the location of a bomb in L.A. planted by Castor and
Pollux. But things go horribly wrong when Castor awakens from his
coma, finds his face missing, and arranges to have Archer's face put
on his faceless head.

This ends up with Archer (as Troy) being stuck in prison while the Troy
brothers run free, without anyone in the world having a clue that the
person imprisoned is really Sean Archer. However, Archer (as Troy)
manages to escape and there begins a battle between the two
protagonists for their identities and lives.

In some respects, this is a rather standard, but intelligent, action
movie. What makes it work so well is the acting of Travolta and Cage,
who, when they switch identities, do so convincingly. The initial shock
and the adjustment period is carried out brilliantly: both characters
see and appreciate what the other person's lifestyle is like. It's
all the more amazing when you realise it is the same actor who just a
few minutes ago played one character but now is showing surprise at
being himself.

The action and comedy is quite good. The contrast between the violence
and the serenity in the Church, or the gunfight set to the music of
Somewhere Over the Rainbow, when Archer and Troy confront each other,
is allegoric and poignant. There is a definite Quentin Tarantino feel
here, especially when members of the Archer family and Troy all find
themselves staring down the barrels of guns.

Amidst all the hype, that mix of ingenuity, poetry, symbolism,
choreography, and cinematography is what makes this one of the better
movies this summer. Definitely worth watching.

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