Face/Off (1997) Review

"Face/Off" Japanese Theatrical Poster

"Face/Off" Japanese Theatrical Poster

AKA: Face Off
Director: John Woo
Writer: Mike Werb, Michael Colleary
Producer: Terence Chang
Cast: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Alessandro Nivola, Gina Gershon, Dominique Swain, Nick Cassavetes
Running Time: 138 min.

By Numskull

There are certain iconoclastic individuals out there who would have you believe that a Hollywood production associated with a Hong Kong film personality is a grievous error…that no film done in any idiom other than the indefinable (and, at times, invisible) Hong Kong “style” can possibly be worth the price of admission. These individuals are delusional fools who are so blinded by their love of the genre that they are unable (or, more likely, unwilling) to see the merit in any other type of movie. This syndrome is not exclusive to Hong Kong fanatics, mind you…it’s also obscenely common among anime fans, special effects geeks, and mass-media controlled simpletons who pay more attention to Leonardo DiCaprio’s table manners than they do to the road in front of them while they’re driving.

In terms of excitement, this movie demolishes just about every Hollywood production out there. Who in their right mind gives a bloody stool if it doesn’t quite meet the paraphenilia listed in The Anal-Retentive Fanboy’s Guide to Hong Kong Cinema? It’s got great shootouts, lots of intensity, it’s vastly superior to Hard Target and Broken Arrow, and there are no barely-visible subtitles that refuse to remain within the confines of the actual screen. The only problems here are a few corny lines of dialogue and Dr. Walsh’s failure to explain why Sean Archer becomes two or three inches shorter when he adopts Castor Troy’s face. Aside from that, it’s an immense pleasure to see an American-made, vengenace-based action movie with lots of crazed violence in lieu of the typical good-uy-saves-the-day bullshit. Any Hong Kong fanboy who won’t watch anything else: F*ck/Off.

Numskull’s Rating: 9/10


By James H.

One of the keys to the success of “Face/Off” is that in the midst of all the preposterous action, the film never really loses sight of the human side of the story. The plot follows FBI agent Sean Archer as he hunts down terrorist Castor Troy. Archer captures Troy and has surgery and takes his face to go undercover to find the location of a bomb. Things complicate when Castor has the same surgery and takes over Archer’s life. As you may have guessed, several gun fights ensue.

“Face/Off” ranks up there with the greatest of American action movies (“Lethal Weapon”, “Die Hard”, “Terminator 2”, “The Rock”, et al). The action is visceral and plenty of fun. Chases, shootouts, explosions, it’s got it all.

The acting is also excellent. Cage and Travolta have a great time playing each other and manage to keep the characters consistent when they change identities. The supporting actors give great performances as well, notably Joan Allen and Alessandro Nivola.

The movie only faults during the denouement, when it becomes a little melodramatic. But that is just one fault in this epic film. Everything else is top notch. The script, the cinematography, editing, music, you name it.

John Woo’s confident and elegant directing keep this film moving at a lightning pace. Had anyone else directed this film, it would have collapsed before the end.

James H’s Rating: 8/10


By Andrew

I could write a novel here and still miss some of the intricacies of Face/Off. I could watch it a hundred times and never identify all the subtle imagery and references. This film is primarily about Castor Troy, a twisted criminal, and FBI agent Sean Archer who is obsessed with bringing Troy to justice. Woo carefully constructs his characters and they remain true to form throughout the film, even though they trade identities.

Before you can finish watching the opening credits you’ve been introduced to Troy and Archer, and you know just why Archer is so bent on rounding him up- Troy accidentally killed Sean’s son while attempting to assassinate the man himself six years ago. Archer never forgave him, but became completeley involved in his work with the FBI, never yielding an inch to anyone and pursuing every criminal relentlessly, unafraid even of dying to take Castor from this world. Our first dialogue with Castor shows a self involved slimeball, who’s not above dressing up like a priest to try to molest a choir girl. It seems unusual that Woo would disguise his villan as a priest because the director professes to be Roman Catholic, but he is making it clear that we should despise Troy. He also makes it clear that Troy really doesn’t belong with the choir, his single black robe and gold chain in stark contrast to the pristene white of a hundred singers.

I’ll skip commenting on the nuances which every movie critic has already pointed out. A few other things I have noticed and truly enjoyed about this film are the scene where Troy and Archer meet for the first time after the surgery. Archer stands in utter disbelief staring at his own face, while Troy shows his sick amusement through facial expression. Notice that in this scene the light reflecting off of Archer (now played by Cage) is constant while the reflections dancing off of Castor’s (Travolta) face are chaotic. Very subtle, but the use of dancing light is used again when Castor makes the candlelight dinner and seduces Archer’s wife. One of my other favorites is the series of confrontations which occur just before the church shootout. The camera cuts back and forth from Castor and Archer’s wife to Archer and Dietrich’s sister. Of the four characters involved in these scenes, only Sasha, Dietrich’s sister, is unaware of the fact that Sean and Castor have swapped identities. The other three characters are all wearing sunglasses during this scene, symbolic of the fact that they know more than they are willing to admit. Only once in his conversation with Sasha is Sean being completely honest, and that is when he takes off his sunglasses long enough to say, “Whatever happens, I promise you, Sean Archer is out of your life for good.”

Woo listened to his test audiences and decided to throw in a happy ending for this film. Although a bit contrived, the ending was so good I felt like crying. We know that Archer is OK, that he hasn’t lost his marriage or the respect of his daughter, and that he has found it in his heart to finally forgive Castor Troy and start healing. What makes this film so moving though is seeing how each man reacts to living the other’s life. Not only do they discover things they never knew about each other, but they have an opportunity to know a little more about themselves. This kind of duality is without parallell in the modern cinema.

Andrew’s Rating: 10/10

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