Summer Movie Showdown: "Face/Off" Review

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Summer Movie Showdown: "Face/Off" Review

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Rating: R (strong language, intense sequences of strong violence)
Length: 138 minutes
Release Date: June 27, 1997
Directed by: John Woo
Genre: Action/Crime/Thriller

Sean Archer (John Travolta) is an FBI agent who has been tracking down terrorist Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) for so long that he has become obsessed. What started out as a routine investigation as part of his job becomes a personal vendetta for the embattled Archer after Troy kills his young son in a botched assassination attempt. Archer spends the next six years hunting down Troy and brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola) to no avail in "Face/Off."

Archer finds out that Pollux has chartered a private jet and gets a team together to go and arrest him and Troy. The team captures the brothers, although Troy is injured in the ensuing gunfight. When plans for a bomb are found in Troy's briefcase, the agents have to devise a plan to get the location of the bomb from the tight-lipped Pollux, since Troy is in a coma and can't speak. It turns out that there is an experimental procedure that only a handful of people at the FBI know about which would allow Archer to switch faces with Troy in order to trick Pollux into giving him the location of the bomb before it blows up half of Los Angeles. He undergoes the procedure and is sent to the prison where Pollux is at, and he is convincing enough to fool him.

Unfortunately for Archer, Troy has awakened from his coma and forced the medical team to perform the same procedure on him, essentially turning him into Archer. He then kills everyone who knows about the surgery and visits the prison to inform the real Archer that he will be staying in prison for the rest of his life while Troy gets to go home and enjoy Archer's family and the power that being an FBI agent will give him to carry out his terrorist activities. Now, what looked to be a successful undercover operation turns into a desperate race against the clock for Archer to escape from the prison and find a way to switch back to his old self. It won't be easy, especially the part where he has to convince his wife Eve (Joan Allen), whom he is distant from, and rebellious daughter Jamie (Dominique Swain). If he can't convince them of his true identity, he may just be condemned to life with the face of the man who murdered his child.

When famed Hong Kong director John Woo agreed to take Hollywood money to make English-language films, fans of the action genre went ballistic. Finally, one of the biggest talents in foreign films was coming stateside to show other action directors how it was done. He began with "Hard Target" and "Broken Arrow," with "Face/Off" being his third English film. It is also one of his finest films to date, showing that his movie instincts could translate to an American audience without having to sacrifice any of trademark moves like the Mexican Standoff or breakneck-speed action sequences.

Woo not only indulges all of his instincts, but he also throws in a lot of good character development to ensure the audience has someone to root for. Without taking the time to develop Archer as a flawed human, his incessant joylessness might be intolerable to some. Instead, the audience accepts him, even when he is overly gruff with his family and coworkers. Woo shows a gentle touch when dealing with the more emotional aspects of the script, which is refreshing to see in an action thriller. In fact, there are some downright touching scenes that might just make the audience members get a little misty in the eyes. Woo also uses some slow-motion sequences, another trademark of him, lest fans of his foreign films think he abandoned one of his most famous touches.

"Face/Off" also poses some fairly deep questions to viewers, which is another rarity in this type of film. Woo and screenwriters Mike Werb and Michael Colleary almost beg the audience to ponder how much of their personal identity is tied up in how they look. If Archer and Troy couldn't switch back to their old bodies, would it eventually change who they were inside, or would they still have some of the same personality traits? It's a lot of thinking for an action film, which is part of what makes the movie so great. Another great part is that Travolta and Cage take a very implausible premise and really sell it. The two actors look nothing alike and have very different body types. Yet somehow, they take a very science fiction-like aspect of the script and make it work without a hint of irony. After they easily sell the premise, "Face/Off" becomes a fast roller coaster of a ride that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats as they ponder some fairly heady questions.

Rating 4 out of 5