Welcome back to our “Retro Reviews” column, where we explore both the movies you know and love, as well as the oft overlooked gems you should be spending more time with. Our seventh entry is John Woo’s operatic Hollywood bullet ballet, Face/Off (1997)…
When John Woo was five years old, his family fled from the civil war occurring in Guangzhou, opting to put down roots in a rough Hong Kong neighborhood. As he grew, Woo was recruited by the local gangs, his refusal of their invitations to join earning him numerous beat downs in the alleys of the Shek Kimp Mei slums. Hoping for escape, Woo often found refuge from the violence in two different arenas: the Christian church and the local movie houses. Both helped him develop an unshakable moral code, as the director is quick to cite the unflinching spirit of brotherhood found in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid as easily as any passage in the Bible.
Throughout his career, spiritual and secular imagery amalgamated as he crafted numerous staples of Hong Kong action cinema (A Better Tomorrow I & II, The Killer, Hard Boiled), in which he often pitted two brothers-in-arms against the world, guns drawn and blazing (just like Butch & Sundance). All the while, he set his stories in the underworld he rejected as a boy, often seemingly attempting to understand the souls of the bad men who endeavored to corrupt his ethical fabric. But it wouldn’t be until he reached American soil and helmed his third Hollywood feature that he’d perfectly combine his fully ingrained interests with his search for identification in a childhood enemy. In many ways, Face/Off not only acts as the perfect culmination of Woo’s career up until that point, but also as the final masterwork in a long, celebrated filmography.
Every frame of Face/Off brims with the elation of an artist recognizing he’s finally been given a canvas large enough to paint in the broadest strokes imaginable. The central conceit of the film is preposterous — an FBI agent (John Travolta) trades physical visages with a master criminal (Nicolas Cage) in order to infiltrate his gang and prevent a terrorist attack. Yet it’s Woo’s embracement of the fantastical, coupled with his complete rejection of reality (not to mention the laws of physics), which allows him to still connect with his audience on an almost primordial emotional level. Every sequence, from the riveting airplane chase that opens to the film to the climactic boat battle, is injected with an operatic sense of good versus evil. Only Woo takes the time to carve out both sides of the ethical spectrum with enough nuances that these action movie archetypes become fully-fleshed human beings.
Woo’s love of the “character actor” (a career he initially aspired to, only to have his mentor Chang Cheh dissuade him in favor of stepping behind the lens) can be felt in his direction of the two lead performances. John Travolta was in the middle of a career resurgence, his work with Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction having polished the dust off of the once shining star. Face/Off was his second collaboration with Woo, with whom he had teamed before for the director’s repressively commercial (yet still fluffily entertaining) Broken Arrow. Only where Woo attempted to mold Travolta into a kind of quintessential antihero, brimming with dark, marquee-idol charisma in that film, he lets the bulbous chin fill anally retentive FBI Agent Sean Archer with enough nervous tics and live-wire outbursts to impress a Ferrara-era Chris Walken. Once he’s switched into the role of Sean’s archenemy, Castor Troy, Travolta plays the part like a slimy skinwalker, oozing a lecherous cool. What could’ve easily been an instance of a newly-confident thespian aping his napalm flame of a co-star (though, to be fair, there is a tiny element of that tossed in) ends up being some of the best character work of the Hollywood icon’s career, comparable to Rock Hudson’s face-swapping turn in John Frankenheimer’s seminal paranoid masterpiece, Seconds.
In 1997, Nicolas Cage was still transforming into the mega-acting butterfly we know and love today. Just the year before, Cage had starred alongside Sean Connery in Michael Bay’s first foray into military fetishism and pure exploitation, The Rock. Another Jerry Bruckheimer production that found him in pure hero mode, Con Air, would be released just three weeks before Woo’s blockbuster (allowing those of us who were able to sneak into R-rated movies in ’97 to have the most kick-ass “Nic Cage, Man of Action” double feature ever). However, Woo doesn’t seem interested in “movie star” Nic Cage. Instead, the director ostensibly looks to collaborate with the same idiosyncratic artist who worked with David Lynch (Wild at Heart), Barbet Schroeder (Kiss of Death) and Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas).
The emotional range Cage displays as both Castor Troy and Sean Archer is extraordinary. For the first half-hour of the movie, Cage is an out and out rock star, one snakeskin jacket and Elvis accent short of playing Troy like Sailor Ripley with two golden, snake-emblazoned handguns. Groping choir girls and telling undercover agents that he “can eat a peach for hours” (don’t front, you know what he’s really saying), Cage has the cocksure swagger of a comic book super villain. Yet once he’s tasked with becoming the wounded emotional core of the picture, Cage taps into the same well of pathos he did for the most wrenching moments of his Oscar grab. The best example — a doctor’s office conversation about Sean’s first date with his wife, Eve (Joan Allen), that should be insanely corny due to the overwrought nature of Mike Werb and Michael Colleary’s script. However, Cage plays the scene with a restraint that contrasts with his early bombast, a true sense of demonstrative dissonance that is masterful.
Yet no matter how well he works with his actors, Face/Off is ultimately a director’s showcase. Woo not only throws in his trademark Christian visual quirks (doves flying inside of churches!), but also gets to flex his movie musical love muscle (the director has often credited the Audrey Hepburn/Fred Astaire romance Funny Face as being a chief early influence). The once great director stages the gun battles like mini dance numbers, his camera acting as an unseen partner that swirls around the participants, and also utilizes a Kubrickian sonic juxtaposition during one of the shootouts. The needle drop of Olivia Newton-John singing “Over the Rainbow” turns what could’ve been a too-long set piece in the middle of the movie into an all-time moment in action cinema, equal parts discord and brutal beauty.
Watching Face/Off in 2014 is a somewhat antiquated experience. Not due to the styles or soundtrack being dated, mind you, but mostly because Woo’s picture is one of the best examples of an auteur’s singular vision writ large within the modern Hollywood system. In an age where big corporations do their damndest to suppress vision in order to make it fit with a certain “mold” of boardroom-authored movie (think everything put out by Marvel), Woo’s sticking to his stylistic guns (if you’ll pardon the pun) results in a slice of cinema that feels like an impossibility nearly twenty years on. This is how big budget movies are supposed to feel: like the end reward of a director tinkering and perfecting their craft so that they can deliver a personal vision to the widest audience possible.
Is Face/Off John Woo’s best motion picture? Possibly. While The Killer is certainly the most “important” film he’s ever made (influencing the overall aesthetic of crime pictures the world over for years to come), Face/Off feels like the movie Woo was building to from the first time he stepped behind the camera – a bullet ballet that achieves maximum entertainment value while also delivering a trumpet-sounding sense of mythic dramatics. Through a perfectionist’s sense of rhythm and framing, Woo somehow makes the ridiculous seem realistic, the convoluted clear and the insane conceivable. Like the very best cinema, Woo sells the truth beneath the artifice, welcoming you into a world all his own and thus causing you to never want to leave. Ultimately, not only are you wildly entertained, but you’ve been slyly coerced into empathizing with the enemy, as Woo guides you, hand-in-hand on a road he’s been traveling his entire life.