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Face/Off (1997)

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Score: 6/10

Genre: Action and Thriller Running Time: 2 hrs. 18 min.

Release Date: June 27th, 1997 MPAA Rating: R

Director: John Woo Actors: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Alessandro Nivola, Gina Gershon, Dominique Swain, Nick Cassavetes, Harve Presnell, Colm Feore, CCH Pounder, John Carroll Lynch

P

sychopathic assassin Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) attempts to kill covert antiterrorism team leader Sean Archer (John Travolta), but only succeeds in fatally shooting Archer’s young son. Six years later, Troy has continued to elude authorities, and now infiltrates a Southern California building (as a priest, no less), aided by partner and younger brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola). After rigging the unknown location with a bomb containing a biological payload, the duo heads to the airport for a simple escape by jet. But Archer has an inside woman, who allows for an apprehension that results in plenty of death, destruction, and Castor’s demise.

With Pollux in custody but Castor dead, there’s no way to make the paranoid sociopath brother reveal the whereabouts of the bomb. And so, with time running out, FBI agent Hollis Miller (CCH Pounder) suggests a radical scheme – to have the actual face of Castor, whose body is being preserved, transplanted onto Archer’s head. With this super advanced technology, and Sean’s knowledge of the Troys, it should be easy enough to get Pollux to talk. “The procedure’s completely reversible,” insists Miller. Plus, “there’s no one else!”

The harebrained plot was incredibly farfetched in 1997; however, the technology has marginally caught up in subsequent years. Regardless, it’s not the premise that comes across as so ludicrous; it’s the execution. It’s pretty ridiculous that Pollux initially doubts that Archer is his brother; it’s not like people regularly switch faces. One would think that a stroke or some medical condition would be the solution to the sudden shift in behavior – not surgically inhabiting the body of another person. To make things more farcical, the real Castor Troy awakes from his vegetative state and demands that Archer’s visage be affixed to his now-faceless, meaty skull. And then Troy torches all the records and kills everyone who knew about the switch – quite conveniently and easily.

With almost every other scene conducted in slow-motion, pervasive opera music, hilariously outrageous devastation, and overacting galore, there’s very little about the film that can be taken seriously. Halfway through, it practically turns into a total comedy, shedding its sci-fi notions and cop action for verbal jokes and goofy mannerisms. The filmmakers certainly don’t care whether or not audiences will view this as a legitimate drama. It’s also the kind of picture in which handguns unleash massive fireballs, background characters dance a jig in midair from bullet impacts as they die, and subtlety is replaced by overkill at every opportunity.

All of this must surely be fun for Cage, who gets to grossly exaggerate in his embodiment of a flamboyantly crazy murderer – and for Travolta too, as he switches back and forth between normal and bonkers with plenty of relish. With director John Woo at the helm, everything else is also overly dramatic and nonsensical – including the acts of running, jumping, sliding across floors, sidelong glances, or even just sipping from a cup of soda. Although the narrative is hysterical in its implausibility, the action portion of the film is reasonably effective, particularly with the shootouts, showdowns, stare-offs, and stunts, even when they’re conducted with needless complexity and utmost overstatement. Unfortunately, the excessive face references don’t help. And neither do the conspicuous white doves (one of Woo’s favorite symbols, which appear in nearly all of his pictures). The face-swapping shenanigans, however, are superbly absurd.

– Mike Massie

 



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