Deep into John Woo's blood-soaked "Face/Off," a thug learns that an FBI agent uses the date of his little boy's murder as the code that activates his home burglar alarm. "That's brilliant," the killer says appreciatively, "but sick."
"Face/Off" shares those characteristics.
Woo, Hong Kong's most renowned filmmaker, is fast becoming recognized as the current master of the action thriller, thanks to his first American films, "Hard Target" with Jean-Claude Van Damme and "Broken Arrow," his 1996 blockbuster. "Face/Off" will only enhance his reputation. Not since Sam Peckinpah has a director filmed bloodletting with such visual flair. The violence in "Face/Off" is balletic, concussive and feverish, exhausting itself
only after what may well be the most astounding sea chase ever filmed. By comparison, "Speed 2" moves in slow motion.
But "Face/Off" is not merely an action movie, it's a psychological thriller. Written by Michael Colleary and Mike Werb, the film reprises one of the oldest conventions of theater -- the switching of identities -- but it does so with intriguing and disturbing freshness. It doesn't hurt that the actors switching places -- John Travolta, who was in "Broken Arrow," and Nicolas Cage -- could go man to man in the charisma department.
Though the film is overly long and its hyperactivity becomes a liability, it's an inspired, imaginative work that will make the Chinese-born Woo a force in Hollywood for years to come.
The identity-switching concerns two blood enemies, haunted FBI agent Sean Archer (Travolta) and Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), a flaky but lethal sociopathic terrorist-for-hire whom Archer has tracked for years. Archer's preoccupation becomes an obsession after Troy kills Archer's young son while trying to eliminate his greatest enemy.
Now, six years later, Archer hits the double by finally getting his man and putting him in a coma at the same time. Unfortunately, though, the arrest occurs only after Troy has planted a bomb somewhere in Los Angeles. The only way to find the whereabouts of the bomb is for Archer to literally replace his face with Troy's. That way, he can enter a penitentiary and get Troy's paranoid but adoring brother-in-crime, Pollux Troy (Allessandro Nivola), to reveal where the bomb is.
It may not be your plan, but let's face it, you're not a professional. Turns out, you're also right. While Archer is stuck in prison, Troy wakes up to discover his face missing in action. Conveniently, Archer's face is floating nearby in a saline solution. It'll do as a loaner.
Ludicrous? You bet it is, so much so that when Archer -- wearing Troy's face -- manages to break out of prison and brings his wife, Eve Archer (Joan Allen, Oscar nominated as Pat Nixon in "Nixon"), up to date, he can't help laughing in between the tears. You can understand why.
But do yourself a favor. Accept the premise. Watching the surgeons cut and suction off the men's faces is as fascinating as it is grotesque. And as action-oriented as Woo is, he is attuned to the psychological traumas and possibilities of waking up in your enemy's shoes, that is, visage.
With all the violence in the film, the most chilling moment comes when Archer (Cage at this point, remember?) looks in the mirror to see the face of the man he loathes beyond all measure. Soon he discovers that switching faces with Troy entails more than a physical act. If everyone takes you for a murderer, how do you hold on to your true self?
"Face/Off" provides a novel acting challenge. Travolta and Cage each must play both characters. Travolta's Archer is a hollow soul who lost the capacity for pleasure when his son died. Once the switch occurs, he finds himself at the wrong end of a horror movie, practically driven mad by the idea that a monster is sleeping with his wife (a piece of male territorial marking that is the film's ugliest thread) and sitting at his desk. At times, Cage's eyes seem ready to explode under the pressure of his rage and helplessness.
The hand-off of Troy from Cage to Travolta is absolutely seamless. Cage creates a showy, licentious villain who is endlessly entertained by his own cleverness. When he shoots a female FBI agent in the head, he shrugs his shoulders in fake embarrassment -- "Oops" -- like a child who's been caught coloring on the walls but knows he's too precious to berate.
Travolta assumes all Cage's Troy characteristics and adds the delicious twist of a sociopath trying to ape genuine emotions. When Eve takes him to visit the grave of Archer's dead son and she begins to weep, Travolta's face is a mask of casual indifference.
For all "Face/Off's" strengths, it has weaknesses as well. Woo loads the film with too many overlong, apocalyptic shoot-outs, some of which become tests of an audience's endurance rather than thrilling. The film feels about a quarter too long. Also, you have to wonder why it is that Travolta and Cage are able to blow everyone else away -- even from great distances -- but never seem able to scratch each other.
Still, "Face/Off" is a giant step for a filmmaker known more for action sequences than psychological insight. "Face/Off" is a loud, throbbing announcement that John Woo is a double threat.
Starring Nicolas Cage, John Travolta and Joan Allen
Directed by John Woo
Released by Paramount Pictures
Rated R (extreme violence, sexual content)
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 6/27/97