Face/Off

(1997) *** R
139 min. Paramount Pictures. Director: John Woo. Cast: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Alessandro Nivola, Gina Gershon.

/content/films/3078/1.jpgIt's a fine line between a ridiculous action plot that delights the viewer into giddy, insistent acceptance and one that sends the viewer into an arms-crossed state of annoyance. It's all about the return on the investment of credulity: what do you get for meeting this movie halfway (if not more than halfway)? In the case of Face/Off, you get genius casting that makes the picture seem like the star vehicle to end all star vehicles; you also get director John Woo triumphantly wielding Hollywood resources for one of his patented gonzo action ballets. Trust me: it's worth it.

Despite those balletic shootouts, Face/Off seems tonally pitched somewhere between opera and comic book. The obsessive Jean Valjean of the story is FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta). Under Archer's relentless pressure, his covert anti-terrorist team has been relentlessly tracking insane terrorist Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). It's more than business for Archer; it's personal. Troy accidentally killed Archer's young son while trying to kill Archer, and Archer won't rest until he has justice. Unfortunately, his obsession-driven absence from home has tainted his life with wife Eve (Joan Allen) and teen daughter Jamie (Dominique "Lolita" Swain). The satisfying supporting cast of FBI agents and goons includes Harve Presnell and John Carroll Lynch (both of Fargo), CCH Pounder (The Shield), Robert Wisdom (The Wire), Jamie Denton (Desperate Housewives), Nick Cassavetes (director of Alpha Dog), Thomas Jane (The Mist), and comedian Margaret Cho, among others.

In the kind of spectacular action sequence you don't see too often outside of a computer these days, Archer captures Troy after chasing his airplane directly into a closed hangar (and it wouldn't be a Woo picture is they didn't have it out with guns as well). The problem: Troy goes into a coma before revealing the deets on his latest terrorist plot: a bomb set to destroy Los Angeles. With the countdown clock ticking, FBI doc Malcolm Walsh (Colm Feore) suggests a radical idea: a face transplant between Archer and Troy, allowing Archer to infiltrate Erewhon Prison and trick Castor's creepy brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola) into giving up the goods. (Nowhere land Erewhon, introduced by the line "The Geneva Convention is void here. Amnesty International doesn't know we exist" reflects our long-standing fear-desire for Abu Ghraib-style hellholes.)

If you're not already having fun, try not to now, with Cage playing Travolta in a futuristic take-off on White Heat. Still unconvinced? How about after Castor Troy wakes up from his coma and puts on Archer's face? The only thing more fun than Cage playing Travolta is Travolta playing Cage. And put them together in one scene? Forgeddaboutit! Face/Off is one for the career highlight reel, and these guys know it, putting their all into full-bodied performances with dramatic heft and ripe comic touches, whether it's Cage donning a priest's outfit and groping a choir girl, or Travolta (as Cage) blurting to Cage (as Travolta), "Ooo-ee—you're good-looking!"

Travolta's Troy says, "Ah, yes. The eternal battle between good and evil. Saint and sinner. But you're still not having any fun!" Face/Off provides the sort of premise that's just on Woo's level, allowing for clever visual commentary on the nature of identity, personal violation, and, yep, good versus evil. Take the face-off staged on two sides of a mirror unit, with the characters simultaneously pointing guns at each other and their reflections, as well as (on the other side of the mirrors) their own faces. This is your action movie on drugs—any questions?

Woo's extensive storyboards lead to a beautifully and confidently shot and edited action film, with his trademark slo-mo leaps, two-fisting of guns, Mexican standoffs, flowing overcoats, and rustled pigeons, but this particular picture seems to liberate Woo to stranger heights, as in the explosive apartment shootout that places at its center a boy named Adam (David McCurley), watching the mayhem but hearing "Over the Rainbow" on his portable headphones—it's a haunting image of disconnect and tainted youth that only seems more resonant today (and naturally, Adam will meet Eve before the picture is over). Like the whole movie, the scene is excessive, it's audacious, and it's terrific. As Jamie wails during the climactic shootout (leading into a double-climactic speedboat chase), "Will someone please tell me what planet I'm on?!" Yes. You're on Planet Woo. 

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Bluray

Aspect ratios: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS 6.1 Surround, Dolby Digital EX 5.1 Surround

Street date: 5/20/2008

Distributor: Paramount Home Video

The astonishing new Blu-Ray special collector's edition of Face/Off (appropriately "mirrored" on DVD) makes the deacde-old film shine like new. The image is razor-sharp; in fact, in the airplane hangar shootout, a stuntman's wires are clearly visible (this seems, though, more a flaw of the source than the transfer). I have absolutely no complaints about the image, and you can't go wrong with a potent 6.1 DTS track. This is a great presentation of a vintage action extravaganza.

Putting the "special" in special edition, Paramount presents all of the bonus features in full HD—it's tremendously satisfying to watch these bonus features in crisp quality instead of downshifting to standard def, as has so often been the case on Blu-Ray. Kudos go to Paramount not only for the picture quality, but a commitment to producing quality extras, starting with two thorough commentary tracks. The first features director John Woo along with writers Mike Werb and Michael Colleary; the second records the writers on their own.

Seven Deleted Scenes (8:26 with "Play All" and optional commentary by Woo, Werb, and Colleary) include "Castor Kills the Janitor" (:36), "Archer Weeps" (1:09), "Childhood Lessons" (1:05), "Hideaway Shootout" (2:03), "Archer vs. Castor Finale" (2:12), "Will Dad Be Dad Again?" (:11) and "Alternate Ending" (1:08). The extended "Hideaway Shootout," preserving Woo's original untrimmed vision, and the creepily ambiguous, Lynchian alternate ending are especially interesting.

The feature-length The Light and the Dark: The Making of Face/Off (1:04:20) includes valuable outtakes and behind-the-scenes B-roll, as well as extensive interviews. Cage and Travolta appear in excellent vintage interviews, and the rest are retrospective chats, with Woo, Werb, Colleary, Joan Allen, Alessandro Nivola, Gina Gershon, Dominique Swain, producers Terence Chang and Barrie M. Osborne, first assistant director Arthur Anderson, production designer Neil Spisak, weapons coordinator Robert "Rock" Galotti, special make-up effects man Kevin Yagher, and stunt coordinator Brian Smrz. The doc details the project's development from a science-fiction epic to a Woo picture, as well as Woo's methodology.

Many of the same faces return in "John Woo: A Life in Pictures" (26:03), which gives a personal biography of Woo and a selective look at his film work. Director John Carpenter adds his testimony to that of Woo, Anderson, Chang, Galotti, Yagher, and Smrz. It's a heartfelt tribute to a man with a remarkable history and work ethic. Lastly, we get the Theatrical Trailer (2:07), a very cool and memorable one starting with a specially shot Travolta monologue. It's great to see Face/Off again, and in such style on Blu-Ray in a bona fide Special Collector's Edition.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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