Face/Off

June 26, 1997

Undoubtedly, Face/Off is the closest film stylistically to his homeland activities that Asian director John Woo has made since joining the Hollywood system. It features some of the symbolic and thematic devices that the Hong Kong emigrant is critically lauded for, and showcases Woo’s superb talent in choreographing exhilarating action sequences. It also is easily his worst American film to date. It sucks even worst than Woo’s Jean-Claude Van Damme atrocity Hard Target - and that’s saying something.

The story is beyond belief, but still offered Woo the potential to work what he does best, which is examining the dynamic between two men diametrically opposed and eternally in conflict. In it, FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) pursues uber-terrorist Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), and in a startling example of high concept irony, switches faces. Archer, a whiny unsympathetic asshole who ignores his wife becomes Troy, a psychotic, sex crazed maniac who loves peaches and blowing things up. Conflict ensues.

Implausibility aside, this could have been a good film if Woo had kept his actors under a tight rein, but instead we’re forced to watch John Travolta prove that he is nothing more than a walking mannerism, and Cage once again hamming it up (as he is so capable of doing if not well directed). The actors paint their characters with broad, obvious strokes, no doubt to establish palpable differences between the two to facilitate differentiating each other post-facial switch. Travolta may have been great in Pulp Fiction, but he’s never been a good actor with range - he acts best with his body instead of his brain, which fit nicely in Get Shorty, but here he proves incapable of conveying the nuances of a man tormented without yelling or bawling. If anyone is the weak link here, it’s Travolta.

A friend remarked afterwards that Face/Off “didn’t know what it wanted to be”, which sums up the main plot structure dilemmas succinctly. The narrative jumps from full-tilt actioneer to a succession of stuttering family drama scenes, to over the top operatic melodrama without any sense of flow - which, in the case of the average Tinseltown dudes-with-guns picture would be par for course. Woo’s two earlier Stateside outings Hard Target and Broken Arrow both slotted nicely into that over-mined genre, which pardoned a plethora of sins. Here, Face/Off flails unsuccessfully for a loftier, shinier brass ring, and in doing so, falls even harder on its misshapen face.

It’s a painful film to watch; a mess of half-fulfilled opportunities and glossed over ideas that trail off into nothingness, as if the script had no time to complete its thoughts, and instead jumps from notion to notion without giving a single one time to disseminate. The burden of blame for all of this convoluted nonsense falls directly on the heads of the writers and film editors, who obviously need to go back to Movie University for a tune-up. The film not only overextends itself in the story department, but is also needlessly long and shabbily edited, which ups the frustration to a nearly insufferable level.

Woo is an excellent director who needs to be able to edit and write his own films to really shine. If you compare his HK The Killer or Hard Boiled to his American films it’s blatant that Woo’s style has been compromised in his transplant to Hollywood. What made his films work was the friction between incongruent cultural elements vying for the same space; the solemn Chinese traditions meeting the Yankee gung-ho insensibility. Here, Face/Off comes off as a chintzy rip off of his earlier work, which is the true irony: John Woo was better at aping Hollywood films than actually making them, and now that he’s in Hollywood, all he seems allowed to do is ape himself.

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