There is a scene in FACE/OFF when all hell breaks loose and both
sides are shooting so fast that it looks like rival fireworks vendors
in a turf war. In the midst of this Gotterdammerung, John Travolta and
Nicolas Cage face each other in their big showdown like a shoot out at
the OK Corral. Only Hong Kong action director extraordinaire John Woo
would choose to set this pyrotechnic ballet to a version of Judy
Garland's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." (Handel's Hallelujah Chorus
provides the background for two other dramatic scenes and a Latin
religious chant for yet another.)
Woo, who directed Travolta last year in the exciting BROKEN ARROW,
puts a unique stamp on his films. His mastery of the slow motion
action sequence is unrivaled. Bullets come turning slowly out of their
barrels, and gunmen twirl slowly in the air as they fire a hail of
The two leads of the film rise to the challenges of their parts
and clearly relish the immense complexities and opportunities of their
roles. As the film opens in a highly stylized sequence, John Travolta,
playing FBI agent Sean Archer, is holding his young son on a
merry-go-round. Nicolas Cage, who plays hired gun Castor Troy, shoots
Sean, but the bullet misses his vital organs and accidentally kills his
This transforms Sean into an obsessed detective who spends the
next 6 years tracking Castor down. Sean becomes nervous, constantly
irritable, and massively unhappy. He will do anything to get Castor.
("When we put this thing away, you can brand the 4th amendment on my
butt," Sean yells to a complaining superior.)
Cage, on the other hand, gives to Castor all of the joy he gave to
the cheerful alcoholic in LEAVING LAS VEGAS. Castor is as smooth and
effusive as Sean is uptight and angry. Castor lives a life of luxury
with fast planes, fast women, fast guns and fast acting drugs. His
matched pair of big golden guns are used to do some shooting worthy of
the best Westerns.
Whenever Sean and Castor get near each other, Woo stages another
beautiful and imaginative action sequence. In one Sean, riding in a
Hummer, plays chicken with Castor in a private jet. When that fails,
Sean switches to a helicopter and tries to disable the jet's wings and
flaps. Oliver Wood's cinematography uses the explosions to give the
film the awe of a Fourth of July spectacular.
Sean captures Castor, who taunts him with a bomb he has planted.
"I'm about to unleash the biblical plague LA deserves," Castor says
shortly before he is put out of commission for what looks to be
forever. Since only his brother knows the location of the bomb, a
doctor suggests that Sean take Castor's face and try to trick his
brother in prison. Eventually, Castor will steal Sean's face to
further complicate matters. The special effects for the operation are
reasonably simple, but quite well done.
The intelligent script by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary manages
to make this preposterous experiment in biological engineering
plausible. Never in the film did the suspension of disbelief become a
Travolta and Cage then had the acting difficulty of adopting the
other person's mannerisms while retaining their own voice and body.
There are both superb at it, but Travolta does the better job of the
two and clearly has more fun at it. The effective chemistry between
the two actors provides a charged atmosphere that seems perpetually on
the verge of explosion.
The best of the smaller roles in the picture is that of Sean's
wife, a doctor named Eve. Joan Allen (THE CRUCIBLE), who has the frail
and homely look so atypical to most actresses, gives a convincingly
confused and frightened performance as Eve.
Travolta is at his best when expropriating Sean's home life. He
leers at Sean's teenage daughter, and claims his marital privileges in
bed with Sean's wife. Since Sean's sex drive had almost died with the
death of his son, Eve is both perplexed and pleased that her husband is
now interested in her again.
After a perfect ending scene of check, but who has the checkmate,
Woo blows it by tacking on several more endings. The most elaborate is
an exhausting speedboat demolition derby and pyrotechnic extravaganza.
After a well paced show, the extra conclusions subtract quite a bit
from the film's rhythm and effectiveness.
As proof of the quality of the acting, when Travolta appears in
the epilogue as the good guy Sean again, the immediate reaction is to
want to warn his wife not to kiss him. Remember, he is the bad guy.
FACE/OFF runs way too long at 2:20. It is rated R for violence
and language. Most of the violence is cartoonish, but there are two
scenes that will cause the squeamish to look away for a few seconds.
The film should be fine for and will be enjoyed immensely by teenagers.
I recommend the show to you and give it ***.
Copyright © 1997 Steve Rhodes