Face/Off (4K UHD)

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 4K UHD

Face/Off was Hong Kong auteur John Woo’s third attempt to make a Hollywood film. With his first attempt, Hard Target (1993), he tried to make a signature John Woo-style extravaganza, but was neutered by uneasy studio executives and an MPAA ratings system that found 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 on Broken Arrow) and Nicolas Cage, two of Hollywood’s most unique, interesting, and idiosyncratically gifted actors, in the same movie together. Unlike many action directors, Woo is able to draw 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 than American audiences. We actually care about the people who are surrounded by a hail of bullets, thus we are involved in the action both emotionally and viscerally. The line between the emotional and the physical is very thin in Woo’s cinematic worlds.

The screenplay 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 people, flaws and all. 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 literally 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 is 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: 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 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, The Killer (1989), which was the first to gain him international notoriety and subsequent 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 4K UHD + Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary dy Director John Woo and writers Mike Werb and Michael Colleary
  • Audio commentary by action film historians Mike Leeder and Arne Venema
  • Audio commentary by writers Mike Werb and Michael Colleary
  • 7 deleted scenes with optional Audio commentary by Woo, Werb, and Colleary
  • The Light and the Dark: The Making of Face/Off documentary
  • “John Woo: A Life in Pictures” featurette
  • Theatrical trailer
  • DistributorKino Lorber
    Release DateNovember 11, 2023

    It has been a long time since Paramount put Face/Off out on Blu-ray back in 2008, which at the time was a major improvement over the existing disc, which was pressed back in the DVD dark ages of 1998. So, it is Kino Lorber’s new 4K UHD disc is a welcome release, as it dishes up a brand-new HDR/Dolby Vision Master from a 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative on a triple-layered UHD100 disc. The 3840 x 2160 image, presented in the film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, is clean, impressively sharp and well-detailed while maintaining a clear grain presence, with excellent color saturation and natural flesh tones. Black levels look great and offer strong contrast. There will likely be some grumbling about the soundtrack, as no improvement has been offered, but rather a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel mix. However, it still offers an impressive 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 soundtrack also excels in maintaining crystal-clear fidelity in the quiet details, as well.

    As far as supplements go, most of what is included here previous appeared on Paramount’s Special Collector’s Edition Bly-ray. That includes two audio commentaries. 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). Kino has added a third audio commentary, this one recorded by action film historians Mike Leeder and Arne Venema, regular contributors to Kino releases who do another first-rate job of analyzing the film and placing it in its proper contexts, especially the action genre and Woo’s filmography. The rest of the supplements (all of which were previously included on the Paramount release) appear on the included Blu-ray disc. 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 divided 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 then-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. The Blu-ray also includes seven deleted scenes, which run about 8 minutes total, with optional commentary by Woo, Werb, and Colleary, and a theatrical trailer.

    Copyright © 2024 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Kino Lorber / Paramount Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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