Saturday, July 11, 2009


No, surgeons cannot carve your face off and graft it onto somebody else like they do to John Travolta and Nicolas Cage in “Face/Off,” a provocative, high-voltage crime thriller. Surgeons may eventually perfect this operation, but for now it is impossible. Just because real surgeons cannot cut off faces and slap them onto other people, however, need not deter their ersatz Hollywood counterparts. Face swapping makes for an audacious movie premise, especially when it plays a key part in the razzle-dazzle, bullet-riddled duel of champions from celebrated Hong Kong action helmer John Woo. If you’ve seen the Jean-Claude Van Damme thriller “Hard Target” or the previous Travolta epic “Broken Arrow,” you’ve been Woo-ed. If you’ve never rented Woo’s super-charged video classics, such as “The Killer,” “A Better Tomorrow,” and “Hard Boiled,” you’ve missed some of the coolest thrillers since “Miami Vice” left the airwaves.

Nicolas Cage is cast as the insanely evil terrorist Castor Troy. Troy shoots Federal Agent Sean Archer (John Travolta of “Broken Arrow”), but his bullet passes through Archer and kills Archer’s young son Michael. Archer has made it his crusade to capture Castor Troy. Six year later, Archer catches up with him. Castor has just planted a bomb with a plague that’s “a tad worse than Gulf War Syndrome.” Before Castor can fly away, a task force of choppers, cars, and SWAT sharpshooters converge on the airport. This scene evokes memories of the Bond movie “License to Kill.” Like the Bond villain, Castor finds his jet stopped and the Feds swarming over it. He manages to kill a few before he is trapped in the deadly draft of a wind tunnel.

Everybody cheers Sean Archer. Castor lies in a coma, while his brother Pollux Troy (Alessandro Nivola in an effective performance) rots in prison. When the Feds inspect Troy’s plane, they discover a computer disc and learn about a dedly bomb. Just when Archer thought it was safe to cross the street, BOOM! An initial dragnet of Castor’s accomplices yields a date, but Pollus refuses to talk. At least to anyone other than his brother Castor. That’s when a black bag, super-secret operation is mounted. Hollis Miller (CCH Pounders of “RoboCop 3”) persuades Archer to swap mugs with Troy. With the specter of a devastating plague in L.A., Archer consent to their harebrained scheme.

The ingenious Mike Werb and Michael Colleary screenplay piles on absurdities galore with the same reckless abandon that some fast food restaurants heap on the lettuce, pickles, and tomatoes. “Face/Off” (***1/2 out of ****) spins itself off of the well worn plot when the good guy has to go so deep undercover that the only people who can help him are the first ones who the villains slay. If you’ve seen Burt Reynolds in Joseph Sargent’s “White Lightning” (1973), or Paul Newman in John Huston’s “The MacKintosh Man” (1973), or Johnny Depp in the recent Al Pacino caper “Donnie Brasco,” you know the plot basics. “Face/Off” is an unbelievable thriller that dresses itself up with realism. Even if half of the stuff in “Face/Off” couldn’t happen, director John Woo stages it so that it looks not only pictorially possible but visually splendid. The idea that John Travolta and Nicolas Cage can swap bodies is hokum of a clever but far-fetched nature. So the moviemakers rely on the indulgence of the audience. Of course, Travolta cannot become anything like Cage. But it’s fun to see how their characters change in this out-of-body experience. And the moviemakers go a step further when they include a surgical scene that is an homage to those old Hammer horror movies when Dr. Frankenstein dunked everything in a fish tank!

If you like movies where the heroes spend a lot of time trading shots with each other, “Face/Off” should be the right caliber for you. The arsenal of weapons is impressive; especially Castor Troy’s matched brace of gold-plated automatic pistols. Werb and Colleary chart the vendetta between Archer and Troy in a series of deliriously poetic shoot-outs that resemble a Sergio Leone extravaganza. You see bullets after they have been discharged leaving the barrel. Whenever it looks like it’s going to run out of plot, “Face/Off” loosens a burst or two of ammo in a gunfight. You get to see a lot of reloading close-ups. Every time a bullet hits anything, whatever it struck erupts into a fountain of shards. And then you have the cameras gliding through all of this mayhem with stunt people jerking and tumbling, shell casings flying, and guys dodging bullets. Woo surprisingly keeps blood and gore to a minimum.

The heroes and villains in “Face/Off” want to destroy each other. Archer is the straight-arrow hero and Troy is the villain. It’s a classic example of the struggle between good and evil. As villains go, Troy is mean to the marrow. He drips evil in a slinky, malignant way. He revels in violence for fun and profit. “Face/Off” tampers little with this image, except where Troy shows concern for his younger brother Pollux by constantly tying his shoes. When Castor gets his comeuppance, you want to cheer because he grows increasingly slimy as the plot thickens.

John Travolta alternates between jaw clenched expressions of rage and soul searching displays of agony. He allows his commitment to the law drive him beyond it. His heroism is tainted by grief for his dead son and his desire to kill Castor. This is one of Travolta’s more toxic performances, especially when he absorbs Castor’s personality.

The undersea prison in “Face/Off” is straight out of a sci-fi movie and another subtle hint about what director John Woo faced if he had remained in Hong Kong. In this prison, which is constructed of steel, the convicts wear steel boots. When a riot breaks out, the guards magnetize the convicts’ boots and zap them with cattle prods. The symbolism of “Face/Off” is fundamental. Woo shows us that there is a little good and evil in us all. When Travolta’s Archer agonizes about the plastic surgery, he says he’s being forced to break the laws that he has been sworn to uphold. He changes more than his face literally to crush evil. He proves this when he uses Castor’s henchmen against his own FBI agents who surround Castor. The filmmakers have a field day with the face symbolism here. The Archers’ use—both husband Sean and his wife—of a hand swipe over their respective faces to restore cheer to themselves in a pre-duel showdown is an example. Castor and Archer in different bodies aim their guns at each other with only a mirror standing between them. The subtle irony that they are going to shoot the evil in the mirror that each reflects but that their bullets may kill the real source of evil on the other side is pretty heavyweight stuff for a summer Hollywood blockbuster.

The worst thing you can say about “Face/Off” is that it never knows when the break it off. There are about five ballet-like staged shoot-outs between Travolta and Cage. Each gunfight resembles pyrotechnical pistolero polkas complete with fireball explosions. Everybody sprays hail storms of lead and everything get the confetti shot out of it. As the reigning maestro of movie violence, Woo has few equals. “Face/Off” emerges as an acrobatic ode to male violence. There is a frantic boat chase with a subsequent fireball explosion, and a prison riot and their portrayal are so fanciful that you forget that you’re watching a crime thriller.

For those who demand happy endings, “Face/Off” features a happy ending. The film also contains some socially approved messages which right-wing critics will no doubt overlook. Characters in “Face/Off” who smoke cigarettes are warned that tobacco products will kill them. A little boy is reprimanded for playing with a gun. Finally, “Face/Off” bristles with that signature John Woo image that seems to be plastered over every movie rental video box: a Mexican stand-off where two guys point guns at each other. If you don’t think that John Woo’s actioneers haven’t influenced Hollywood, you should now!

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