The film had me from the first moments, but I think the moment that sold me on John Woo’s 1997 action masterpiece was a moment between Sean Archer (John Travolta) and his wife Eve (Joan Allen). Circumstance has forced him to make a decision to go on one last assignment to put to rest once and for all his case file on terrorist Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), who inadvertently murdered Sean’s son six years earlier while taking a shot at Sean. Eve has waited a long time for Sean to put the tragedy behind him, and is saddened and angry that he’s not keeping his promise. The music by John Powell (a Hans Zimmer disciple who would go on to do wonderful work on his own for Paul Greengrass)- and by extension, the audience- feels her pain, but we also know what a wrenching decision this has been for Sean. Little do either of them realize just how far they’ll have to go to put Castor out of their life once and for all.
Well, Sean knows to a degree. You see, before he was captured and put in a coma- in a thrilling opening shootout that would be a suitable climax in any other movie- Castor planted a bomb in Los Angeles that’s set to go off in six days. His brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola) isn’t talking, and won’t to anyone in his brother. Special Ops lets him in on a possible solution, taking him to a surgeon whose techniques go beyond mere plastic surgery. Long story short, Sean takes on the image of his worst enemy to foil his plan. But as happens in many movies, it’s not as easy as all that, and it’s not long before Castor wakes up, and gets his own makeover, leaving Sean in a maximum-security prison and giving him carte blanche to use Archer’s position for his own gain.
At first glance, you might say Hollywood had jumped the proverbial shark with such a premise, but that’s only because the most die hard of “Face/Off” fans will remember that the script by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary was originally a futuristic sci-fi epic in the John Woo vein of such Hong Kong classics like “The Killer” and “Hard-Boiled.” When Woo didn’t bite on directing it, the story was rewritten with a contemporary setting that allowed the director to mine the same moral and psychological quandaries that made his Hong Kong films as thrilling in story as they were in action. In its’ own way, “Face/Off” paved the way for recent blockbusters like “Iron Man,” “Spider-Man 2,” the “Bourne” trilogy (which employed “Face/Off” veterans Powell, cinematographer Oliver Wood, and- to start- editor Christian Wagner to brilliant effect), “Minority Report,” “The Departed,” and “The Dark Knight,” where the main characters are put to the test psychologically as much as they are physically, and hero and villain are two sides of the same coin. Woo set the stage for not only these films but the work of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and most every other action director of the past 20 years.
And “Face/Off” is his masterpiece. Maybe it’s the mediocrity and self-parody of many of his other American productions- which lack the cinematic purity of his Hong Kong epics- that make others devalue it (although the 140 minute runtime doesn’t help it’s case- as cool as it is, the motorboat chase finale really is unnecessary). Their loss. I’ll be the first to admit that “Broken Arrow,” “Paycheck,” and “M:i-2” and “Hard Target” pale in comparison to his two “A Better Tomorrow” thrillers, “Once a Thief,” and “Bullet in the Head,” but on two occasions- this film and his underrated 2002 war film “Windtalkers” (also with Cage)- Woo was allowed to look at the moral costs of violence in a way only he’s willing to do among Hollywood action auteurs.
You might think such profound thinking would make his films boring (and true, “Windtalkers” isn’t without its’ wind-bag moments), but “Face/Off” is beautifully entertaining- fast, funny, and frightening, everything a terrific action movie should be. It hits just about every dramatic genre without compromise- come on, removing someone’s face, only to have them wake up without it, is scary shit (though played by Cage with his singular style of dark comedy)- but with a bravado that puts most action movies to shame. Woo doesn’t shy away from the preposterous aspects of Werb and Colleary’s deft script- he uses them to his advantage.
Take what’s probably my favorite comic moment in the film. By this point Castor has taken on Sean’s visage. He’s driving home (with INX’s “Don’t Lose Your Head” on the radio), lamenting about the prospect of playing a suburbs man. Eve is leaving for work. Sean drives past the house. Eve’s confused. Sean slams on the breaks. And looks back. I won’t spoil the rest of it, but Woo and Travolta turn it into comic gold, subverting Sean’s persona by letting a little Castor come through. But watch Eve’s face when she drives away- she’s digging Castor-as-Sean. Is he what she expects? No, but Castor’s mission is accomplished- he’s assimilating into Sean’s life.
This being predominantly an action movie, I suppose I should be discussing the film’s action sequences- my favorite of which is the loft shootout where Woo’s sentimentality and brutality collide in a way unseen since the climax of “The Killer,” although the beach-side church shootout raises the ante higher- but such is the accomplishment of Woo and his collaborators that they managed to make a fully-rounded movie, where characters drive the story (not action), and moral and psychological issues drive the characters. For Travolta and Cage, this is a milestone in careers filled with them (for Travolta, they include “Get Shorty,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Saturday Night Fever,” and “Grease”; for Cage, they include “Adaptation.”, “The Weather Man,” “Raising Arizona,” and his Oscar-winning turn in “Leaving Las Vegas”). For Woo, this was a chance to marry his Hong Kong storytelling gifts with a Hollywood budget that gave him free reign. For me, well, it was an unexpected pleasure that had me crying like a little girl by the end, saying, “Damn you, John Woo.” Hollywood escapism doesn’t get any better than this.