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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Face/Off

Starring: Nicolas Cage, John Travolta
Director: John Woo
Rated: R
RunTime: 138 Minutes
Release Date: June 1997
Genres: Action, Suspense, Thriller

*Also starring: Gina Gershon, Joan Allen, Alessandro Nivola, Nick Cassavetes, Harve Presnell, Colm Feore, John Carroll Lynch, Robert Wisdom, Margaret Cho

Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

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 bullets.

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 son instead.

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 problem.

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. (Or was.)

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

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