Combustible Celluloid Review - Face/Off (1997), Mike Werb, Michael Colleary, John Woo, John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Gina Gershon, Dominique Swain, Margaret Cho, Alessandro Nivola, Nick Cassavetes, Harve Presnell, Colm Feore
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With: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Gina Gershon, Dominique Swain, Margaret Cho, Alessandro Nivola, Nick Cassavetes, Harve Presnell, Colm Feore
Written by: Mike Werb, Michael Colleary
Directed by: John Woo
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 140
Date: 06/26/1997

Face/Off (1997)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Giving Them 'Face'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I saw Face/Off on June 30, 1997, the day China took overcontrol of Hong Kong from Great Britain. This impending changeover is whatcaused director John Woo and many other film artists to come to the US. I don't know what Hong Kong's future will be like, but watching Face/Off on thatday, I can only say how lucky we are to have a great director like JohnWoo living and working among us.

I had feared, after his mediocre American films Hard Target (1993) and Broken Arrow (1996), that Woo would never fit in to the rigid, greedy, product-oriented Hollywood system, and be able to make films like he did in Hong Kong. Films like The Killer (1989), Bullet in the Head (1990), and Hard-Boiled (1992) are so damn good that Hollywood would never allow their like to be made again. But, while watching Face/Off, I was reminded again and again of the great artist who made those great Hong Kong films. Woo has found a new home, and the audience wins.

Face/Off concerns a good guy, Sean Archer (John Travolta), and a bad guy, Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). They've been after each other for years, and they know each other inside and out. This super-intense relationship harkens back to The Killer and Hard-Boiled. American films rarely hit this level of character conflict (usually a two-dimensional villain is good enough). Cage plants a biological bomb somewhere in the city limits, then goes into a coma. In order to find the location of the bomb, Travolta must take Cage's face, and go undercover in jail, hoping Cage's brother will spill the beans.

Before Travolta can get out, Cage wakes up and takes Travolta's face. From this point on, when you see Travolta, it's really Cage, and when you see Cage, it's really Travolta. The two actors do an amazing job of capturing the other's quirks and personality traits. On top of that, Woo creates an atmosphere of heightened senses and drama, where the actors plumb the depths of their feelings, much more so than in any American action picture I've ever seen. Cage and Travolta are both unleashed, and their skills and emotions run wild.

If that were all, Face/Off would already be an extraordinary movie. But Woo shows us again and again why he is the best. The photography in the quiet scenes makes you gasp, and the action scenes make your guts clench up. If this material were handled by any other director (say, Jan de Bont, Simon West, or Joel Schumacher) it would be unconvincing and annoying. Woo perfectly, poetically, completely absorbs his material and shines it back out to us to take in with new eyes. There are so many small touches and single moments of excellence, that I would almost like to list them all here, but I would rather everyone see this movie for themselves.

Make no mistake--those who are looking for the next Orson Welles, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, he is here, and his name is John Woo. Face/Off ranks among his finest work. It is one of 1997's best films. I want to see it nominated for a whole rack of Oscars, especially two Best Actors, and a Best Director. (Cage did not deserve his award for Leaving Las Vegas like he deserves an award here.)

Face/Off also stars Gina Gershon, Joan Allen, Dominique Swain, and Margaret Cho, who are all admirable in small roles.

In 2023, I re-visited Face/Off in a new two-disc 4K/Blu-ray edition from Kino Lorber, and found it to be just as entertaining as my first time. The Blu-ray Disc looks and sounds gorgeous, and includes three (!) commentary tracks: an older one by director Woo and screenwriters Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, a 10th anniversary track by the writers, and a brand-new track by critics Mike Leeder and Arne Venema. We also get deleted and alternate scenes, a five-part making-of featurette, a half-hour featurette on Woo's career, and a trailer. Highly Recommended.

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