For John Woo’s third Hollywood feature, it was announced that he would be getting back to something much closer to the Hong Kong action thrillers that made him famous. Being a big fan of Woo, especially those HK films like Hard-Boiled and A Better Tomorrow, the news raised my hopes for this one, especially when I heard that the script was very good. What a disappointment it is to find that Face/Off is much too close to Woo’s previous work.
Those of you that see this picture that are only familiar with Woo from his American films may wonder what I’m fussing about, as Face/Off is a solid change in flavor from the usual Hollywood shoot-’em-ups, featuring plenty of hard-hitting action and explosions presented with a great deal of style and finesse. Well, what’s bothering me is that most of Face/Off‘s action pieces – and plenty of the surrounding atmosphere – is lifted whole from Woo’s earlier work. Men in long coats and sunglasses walk in slow-motion, a shoot-out in a church, flocks of doves, multiple Mexican stand-offs – what were once Woo’s trademarks have become clichés. And what’s worse: they’ve been awkwardly shoehorned into what could have been a much cooler movie.
John Travolta re-teams with Woo as the leader of an anti-terrorist FBI unit, relentlessly hunting down freelance master terrorist Nicholas Cage, the man who’d killed his young son. After Cage is finally captured, it’s learned that Cage had already hidden a huge bomb in the heart of Los Angeles. Travolta secretly undergoes an advanced surgical process which transplants Cage’s face onto his (while changing his voice and body), and Travolta/Cage then infiltrates the ultra-tech prison to get the bomb’s location from Cage’s brother. Plot hole #1: the original script was set in the near future, making these sci-fi elements a neatly acceptable stretch. Setting the film in 1997 makes these elements laughably incongruous.
The real Cage wakes up from his coma and escapes of course, and forces the surgeons to give him Travolta’s face (kept in storage), then kills everyone who knew about the switch. Plot hole #2: how could Cage/Travolta know that he’d eliminated everyone in the know?
Cage/Travolta then goes on to “go straight”, making himself a powerful figure in the FBI and taking over as Joan Allen’s loving husband. Plot hole #3: Travolta had asked the surgeon to restore a bullet hole scar when he returns from his undercover mission. Wouldn’t the doc have double-crossed Cage/Travolta by not restoring this identifying mark? When Travolta/Cage learns how he’s been screwed, he makes a desperate escape from prison. Plot hole #4: He makes his final escape by diving into the ocean, miles from shore. How the heck does he get all the way to dry land?
What saves the film is the performances of the two stars: it’s impressive when an actor portrays two distinct characters in a film, but it’s quite amazing to see these two first create their own rich characters, then play each other’s roles convincingly, then play those characters while they slip in and out of impersonations of each other! They manage to make the most of the shifting lines between personalities, raising questions about the way we connect ourselves with the way we look. If these two stars gave these performances in a better film, they’d be competing for an Oscar next year.