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Face/Off
Director: John Woo
Screenplay: Mike Werb & Michael Colleary
Stars: John Travolta (Sean Archer), Nicolas Cage (Castor Troy), Joan Allen (Dr. Eve Archer), Alessandro Nivola (Pollux Troy), Gina Gershon (Sasha Hassler), Dominique Swain (Jamie Archer), Nick Cassavetes (Dietrich Hassler), Harve Presnell (Victor Lazarro), Colm Feore (Dr. Malcolm Walsh)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1997
Country: U.S.
Face/Off DVD
Face/Off Face/Off was Hong Kong auteur John Woo's third attempt to make a Hollywood film. His first attempt was 1993's Hard Target, which he tried to make as a signature John Woo-style extravaganza, but was neutered by uneasy studio executives and the ratings system that founds his blood-spurting operatics too much. Woo responded by making Broken Arrow (1996), a by-the-numbers action-adventure that could have been made by virtually anyone. While a disappointment to Woo's fans, its box-office success gave him enough leverage to do things his way once and for all in making Face/Off, which remains his best American film.

Woo's coup de grace was having John Travolta (who had already worked with Woo in Broken Arrow) and Nicolas Cage, two of Hollywood's most unique, interesting, and gifted actors, in the same movie together. Unlike many action directors, Woo is able to bring multi-layered performances out of his actors and actually incorporate them into his films, so that his over-the-top action is underlined with characterization and emotion, albeit in an often heightened form that is more familiar to Asian audiences. We actually care about the people who are surrounded by a hail of bullets, thus we are emotionally as well as viscerally involved in the action.

The screenplay for Face/Off by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary involves Woo's favorite theme: a cop and a crook who have more in common than they think. Like the great Sam Peckinpah, Woo is attracted to complex and broken heroes, ones who have vicious dark sides that oddly mirror the criminals they are chasing. He relishes mixing black and white, refusing to infect his movies with perfect, indestructible heroes. He understands the human dilemma inherent in all situations, and he allows his heroes to act badly, to remind us that they are strictly human. According to Woo, “There are no really good guys or bad guys in this world. I think all of mankind, we all have some good things, bad things. That is realistic to me. That's real ... especially, for my hero. Sometimes he's good, but sometimes he's a little bad.”

Woo's hero in Face/Off is Sean Archer, initially played by Travolta. Archer is an FBI agent who has spent the past six years obsessively pursuing an international terrorist mastermind named Castor Troy (Cage) who was responsible for the death of Archer's four-year-old son. In a huge shoot-out at the airport, Archer captures Castor's brother/partner, Pollux (Alessandro Nivola), and puts Castor in a coma. Unfortunately, Archer discovers that they have planted a bomb full of nerve gas somewhere in Los Angeles. The only way to find out where it is located is to get the information from Pollux, a paranoid sociopath who will never willingly divulge the information.

This leaves Archer with one option: disguise himself as Castor and enter the prison where Pollux is being held to extract the information. How does he do this? By a special, high-tech surgical procedure where Archer and Castor will literally exchange faces. On paper, this sounds utterly preposterous (it was originally envisioned as a sci-fi movie), but the premise is set up so matter-of-factly that you are immediately convinced. Woo shows the surgical procedure in graphic detail, and by the time it is over, Archer is wearing the face of his son's killer.

Unfortunately, while Archer is in prison getting the information, Castor wakes up, forces the doctor to give him Archer's face, then he burns down the lab and kills everyone who knows about the secret mission. So Castor (now played by Travolta) is cruising the streets free and invading Archers' home, while Archer (now played by Cage) is locked in prison. Archer's wife (Joan Allen) and daughter (Dominique Swain) have no idea they are sleeping with the enemy, and the prison guards have no idea they are beating one of their own.

Thus, the movie literally turns into a battle of identity, bringing up all kinds of questions and dilemmas. What would be the repercussions of switching identities with a killer? What would it be like to have to look in the mirror and see that you are wearing the face of your son's murderer? Of course, it is also a brilliant device for allowing Travolta and Cage free reign in their performances. Each actor plays both the good guy and the bad guy, and each is memorable in his own way. They dig deep into the characters and mimic the small details, such as the way they walk or the way they smile. Although the plot sounds confusing on paper, the actors do enough to make it clear who's who at all times.

Finally free to make a film his way, Woo dug into his Hong Kong roots to do what he does best, which could be described as melodramatic ultraviolence: the action scenes are pure spectacle to behold, stylized and enhanced through slow motion, thunderous music, and specifically choreographed bloodletting. They are also uniquely his, especially the way in which he incorporates his affinity for movie musicals, such as the scene in Face/Off in which a deafening shoot-out is scored to Olivia Newton-John's rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The starkly discordant music has a striking aesthetic effect, but it also plays into the film's emotional impact in that the music is meant to reflect a child's inner state as he is shielded, however tentatively, from the violence around him.

Thus, the violence works because it is punctuated by emotion and drama. More than anything, Face/Off is a story about family, as Archer struggles to piece his broken family back together in the wake of tragedy. That he does so through violent means is both an expected part of the genre, but also a reflection of Archer's own broken soul. At the beginning of the film he doesn't care if he lives or dies; by the end, he does. Thus, the violence, hyperkinetic as it is, is always grounded in character dynamics and an underlying belief in the sanctity of the family, which is what makes Castor's invasion of it all the more perverse.

Face/Off has many similarities to Woo's best film, 1989's The Killer, which was the first to gain him international notoriety and notice in Hollywood. Both films share an odd connection between the cop and the criminal, both have a scene where the two enemies find themselves face-to-face with guns inches from each other's throats, and both have climactic shoot-outs in a church with white doves flying in the background. Both films feed insatiably on Woo's peculiar melodramatic brand of pop art, and even if Face/Off isn't quite the equal of The Killer, it still works brilliantly.

Face/Off Special Collector's Edition DVD
Face/Off is also available on HD-DVD.
Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AnamorphicYes
Audio
  • English Dolby Digital EX 5.1 Surround
  • English DTS 6.1 Surround
  • French Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround
  • SubtitlesFrench, Spanish, French
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary by director John Woo and screenwriters Mike Werb and Michael Colleary
  • Audio commentary by screenwriters Mike Werb and Michael Colleary
  • The Light and the Dark: The Making of Face/Off five-part documentary
  • “John Woo: A Life in Pictures” documentary
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • DistributorDreamWorks Home Entertainment
    SRP$19.99
    Release DateSeptember 11, 2007

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    John Woo fans have been waiting a long time for this one, and they won't be disappointed. The new high-definition anamorphic transfer of Face/Off is first-rate and marks a real improvement over the existing Face/Off disc, which was pressed back in the DVD dark ages of 1998. The 2.35:1 image is clean, sharp, and well-detailed, with excellent color saturation and natural flesh tones. Black levels look great and offer strong contrast without any noticeable artifacting. The soundtrack has also been improved, this time around offering a choice between newly mixed Dolby Digital EX 5.1 surround and DTS 6.1 surround tracks. Those with the necessary equipment will want to select the DTS track, but both offer quite the sonic experience, with gunfire and explosions packing the expected wallop. The speedboat chase at the end will work well for those wanting to show off their systems. However, the soundtracks also excel maintaining crystal-clear fidelity in the quiet details, as well.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    While Paramount's 1998 DVD of Face/Off was a bare-bones affair, this new Special Collector's Edition gives us a host of supplements, starting with two audio commentaties. The first is a group affair with director John Woo and screenwriters Mike Werb and Michael Colleary. They have a good rapport and allow each other plenty of room to discuss their contributions, which are sometimes self-deprecatingly humorous, for example when Werb and Colleary joke about the ridiculously long countdown time for the bomb in the convention center. The second audio commentary, which features only Werb and Colleary, is a nice addition, but it's largely superfluous since the first commentary is so thorough and there is little new to be found here (in fact, significant sections of it appear to be identical to the other commentary).

    The second disc contains two documentaries. The first is The Light and the Dark: The Making of Face/Off, a mind-bogglingly thoroughly making-of documentary that runs more than an hour length. It is conveniently broken down into five mini-docs of varying lengths: “Science Fiction/Human Emotion,” “Cast/Characters,” “Woo/Hollywood,” “Practical/Visual Effects,” and Future/Past.” Virtually everything you would want to know about the production of Face/Off is in there somewhere, and it features a combination of new and circa-1997 interviews with just about everyone involved in the production. In addition to those who contributed to the commentaries, we also get producers Terence Chang and Barry M. Osborne, assistant director Arthur Anderson, weapons coordinator Jack Galotti, effects creator Kevin Yagher, stunt coordinator Brian Smrz, and stars John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, and Gina Gershon. The second documentary is “John Woo: A Life in Pictures,” which is essentially a 26-minute interview with Woo in which he traces his life from poverty in China (he was only able to go to school because he was sponsored by a family in the U.S.), to his Hong Kong filmmaking career, and beyond. It also features interviews with some of his associates, including Chang, Anderson, Galotti, Yagher, and Smrz, as well as fellow director and admirer John Carpenter.

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment


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