***½/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Gina Gershon
screenplay by Mike Webb & Michael Colleary
directed by John Woo
by Walter Chaw Arriving right smack dab in the latter half of a decade in American cinema that saw digital "reality" supplant filmic "reality" (and appearing the same year as James Cameron's Forrest Gump: Titanic), Hong Kong legend John Woo's high-camp Face/Off directly (and presciently) addresses issues of identity theft, terrorism, and the digital corruption of reality and indirectly addresses Woo's émigré influence on the modern action film. It's a key picture in a ten-year cycle obsessed with mercurial personality shifts--with sliding effortlessly in and out of various personae according to expediency and whim. (Michael Tolkin's awesome Deep Cover being the pinnacle of this trend.) Gauge the state of the nation from its most democratic entertainment; for his part, Woo--struggling to translate the heroic bloodshed of his HK work for western audiences and revealing himself in the process to be a starfucker with questionable taste in Hollywood stars (Christian Slater? John Travolta? Nicolas Cage? Seriously?)--went the self-parodic route with Face/Off (is that Joe Bob Briggs as a lobotomizer in a futuristic supermax, by gum?), wisely un-harnessing Cage's and Travolta's intimidating inner hams in turn to roam free-range through the picture's exuberantly ridiculous tableaux.
I remember a few reviews at the time praising Cage and Travolta for playing each other post the film's grisly, Roger Corman-esque transformation sequence, which to me is so much Baudrillard-ian badger shit. The only thing they're playing is monkey-turd insane in a film whose premise encompasses a face-transplant that transforms a noble FBI agent into a psychotic terrorist-for-hire (and vice versa), not to mention a gun battle set to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and an escape sequence that hinges on the visual gag of our hero repeatedly losing his shoes. This is Cage's oddest performance in his oddest film since Vampire's Kiss. That's saying a lot.
For the rest of it, you have the standard Woovian ear violence (used to demonstrate the technology about to be employed in switching the faces of the leads), the unmotivated slow-motion, the shameless fetishization of gun barrels, the church doves, the imperilled innocents, the awful dialogue ("I'm disturbed about the Constitutionality of your Gestapo tactics!"), and the doubling/merging of ambivalent protagonist and antagonist. And of course we have the Mexican stand-off and the standard concerns of friendship and honour bathed in epiphanies of lead and squib. (Woo even borrows the ear-plug-and-baby gun battle from his own Hard-Boiled.) But Woo ups the ante in Face/Off with fleshed-out female counterparts for our good guys/bad guys, casting Joan Allen as G-man Archer's (Travolta/Cage) long-suffering wife and Gina Gershon as psycho Castor's (Cage/Travolta) moll.
I confess I love the sequence where the two men draw guns on one another after a back-to-back conversation behind some obstacle, only to discover upon swivelling around to pull the trigger that they're facing off, as it were, against reflections of themselves looking like their archenemies. That's garbage of the finest vintage, my friend, the kind of seriomythic machismo with which Woo almost single-handedly redefined action in the Clinton era. I love, too, the perversity of having the nutjob serial killer be the better husband and father; and the button-down clean marine having to deny his involvement in the murder of his own son when, in truth, it's his obsession with his job that repeatedly puts his family in the line of fire.
It's a neatly tied-off, ultra high-concept conceit--the crystallization of so many of the threads that will come to define the Nineties that Face/Off may in time be considered as important to that decade's cinema/sociology as Red Dawn is to the '80s. The pair of Elvis-loving, Bubba combatants (Travolta will play Clinton the following year; Cage has never really stopped emulating Clinton-template Elvis) could be seen to represent the two sides of our last Democratic President. And if there was a brief period of identity crisis inspired by the installation of a Rhodes Scholar good 'ol boy Oxford-educated sax-player-on-"Arsenio" chubby chaser into the Oval Office, here it is literalized in a Hollywood production by an outsider artist finally recovering his stride in a melodrama big enough for his excesses.
Face/Off is defiantly, triumphantly stupid, but it's incredibly smart about its director. When Cage's Archer uses pigeons to distract Travolta's Castor, just prior to Castor (in daddy's clothing) licking "his" daughter's (Dominique Swain) face, well, Jesus Fucking Christ. The action--balletic, if admittedly lacking the gravitas of Woo's Hong Kong pictures--is superb; Woo might be the only director alive capable of making a boat chase exciting, though I can't help thinking that Face/Off is more an acknowledgment that the only way to translate his style cross-culturally is as a wry, self-flagellating indictment of an adopted culture that doesn't respect Woo as anything more than an action director. No wonder he's gone home again, armed with muse Chow Yun Fat, but at least he dropped this to-the-rafters atom bomb before he left.
Because the time is right (and to mark the picture's tenth anniversary), Face/Off returns to DVD in a 2-Disc Special Collector's Edition courtesy the kind auspices of Paramount. Now, at last, we can be reminded of Margaret Cho's cameo performance (lamentably, a speaking one); of the astoundingly deep cabal of secondary players running the gamut from Alessandro Nivola to Gershon to Colm Feore to CCH Pounder; and of how the whole thing is so much better than it ought to be. The remastered 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is beautiful and crisp (albeit still a bit edgy) while the audio, upgraded to DD 5.1 EX and 6.1 DTS-ES, is, in a compound word, fillings-shaking.
In addition to the feature, Disc One includes two film-length commentaries, although one is really a rehash of the other. Listen to the track with John Woo and writers Mike Werb and Michael Colleary. It's not that interesting, all told, but the second yakker is essentially the same minus Woo. Weird, right? Both, sadly, degenerate in record time to plot narration and back-patting--especially unbecoming when the scribes praise themselves for the emotional depth of the piece. Chigger, please. A selection of seven deleted scenes (8 mins. total) with optional commentary (from Woo, Werb, and Colleary) unearths additional Castor-unpleasantness as well as an elided moment with Travolta crying in his dead screen-son's room. The alternate ending is Woo's self-confessed "Alfred Hitchcock" ending, indicating that Woo doesn't actually know how Hitchcock ended any of his pictures but does know how to do an "Eszterhas" ending. Hooray for Woo. Trailers for Shooter, Zodiac, and Next round out the first platter.
Disc Two sports "The Light and The Dark: Making Face/Off" (64 mins.), an exhaustive/exhausting retrospective making-of blending talking heads old and new that finds the principals comparing the picture to everything from Birdman of Alcatraz to the Golden Age of the Hollywood Musical. Favourite stupid statement? "For the first time, Hollywood saw that the action film could be witty." Yippee-kay-yay, motherfucker. "John Woo: A Life in Pictures" (26 mins.) is premature, to say the least, but offers a surprisingly broad overview of the HK auteur, paying particular attention to Woo's nominal artistic triumph Bullet in the Head. If it encourages a few more folks to check out his HK library, I can't complain. A nice theatrical trailer using that rarity nowadays of specially-shot footage caps the presentation; the two discs are housed in a standard-sized keepcase wrapped in a cardboard slipcover. Originally published: October 26, 2007.