Ever since director John Woo left for Hollywood after Hard Boiled blew us all away in 1992, most fans have regarded his domestic output as a pale imitation of "the Hong Kong years". One exception to the rule is Face/Off (1997), a clever tale of role reversal, redemption and revenge. Our subjects are two men on opposite ends of the moral spectrum who switch identities via unusual medical circumstances, resulting in a twisted game of cat-and-mouse peppered with liberal doses of gunpowder. What a predicament!
Originally conceived as a futuristic sci-fi action epic, the project was shuffled around and relegated to the present tense for, among other reasons, budgetary constraints. Woo was eventually brought on to helm the project, having initially turned it down because he wasn't comfortable with the futuristic elements. Luckily, these compromises worked out quite well: the end result was a more emotionally charged yet down-to-earth version of its former self, but would the formula prove successful? The short answer was a resounding "yes", as Face/Off enjoyed a strong performance at the box office and generally positive reviews. Having enjoyed the film during its original theatrical run, I somehow managed not to watch it again during the last decade. Luckily, Face/Off holds up fairly well.
Here's a quick synopsis: our "two men on opposite ends of the moral spectrum" are Sean Archer (John Travolta) and Castor Troy (Nicholas Cage); the former is an obsessed FBI agent whose son was inadvertently killed by the latter, an international terrorist. An early confrontation leaves Troy comatose while a bomb ticks away somewhere in Los Angeles, leaving Archer little chance of infiltrating Troy's inner circle to uncover the bomb's location. He eventually agrees to an unusual facial transplant procedure, as his comatose enemy seems like the perfect candidate to literally "hide behind". The plot thickens: aside from Archer's continued neglect of his wife and daughter, the task of assuming Troy's identity proves almost too much to bear. Without giving too much away, their identities are effectively swapped after Troy proves to be less comatose than originally assumed. Suspension of belief is certainly required to fully appreciate Face/Off...but it's an action film, so what else is new?
Speaking of typical action movie elements, the sheer volume of explosions and gunfire rival most of Woo's past contributions to the genre---but with the increased budget and longer shooting schedule (see also: Mission: Impossible 2), there's a certain polish that often works to Face/Off's advantage. It's hard not to long for the frenzied spontaneity of Hard Boiled, The Killer and A Better Tomorrow, but Face/Off blends Hollywood slickness with Woo's knack for controlled, fluid chaos better than any other of his recent films. Additionally, most of the film's effects are 100% practical, trading in CGI trickery for realistic body doubles and daring stunt work. It's a potent combination, all things considered, and one that hasn't aged much in the last decade.
Clocking in at a daunting 140 minutes, Face/Off could've been trimmed a bit here and there without losing any of its real strengths. Woo clearly focused much of his attention on the film's emotional content, yet it often isn't enough in proportion to the endless shootouts and chase sequences. When the personal drama is present and accounted for, it's usually pulled off quite well; the problem is, most of these domestic issues are given equal attention so none really stand out. Since this is a story based around dual identity and revenge, Face/Off has plenty of balls in the air at once---and it usually does a fine job with the juggling act, but a slightly more streamlined set of supporting characters would've made the film virtually seamless. Still, it's hard to complain when you've got this much action, suspense and drama crammed into one enthusiastic package.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, Face/Off returns on DVD in a polished two-disc set from Paramount, effectively replacing the single-disc version released all the way back in 1998. From top to bottom, there's plenty of good news here: the technical presentation is better than ever, while a slew of retrospective extras supports the main feature quite nicely. Best of all, Paramount has resisted the temptation to slap a ridiculous title on this release; otherwise, this might have been named the "Woo-wee, You Good Lookin'!" Edition. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 displays, Face/Off looks excellent from start to finish. Though the previous disc was never part of my DVD collection, it's obvious that this squeaky-clean transfer is an improvement over the original version. Colors are bold and natural, boasting strong detail and excellent contrast. Digital problems---such as edge enhancement and pixellation, for example---are nowhere to be found, rounding out the visual presentation nicely. Until the delayed high-definition release hits store shelves in late October, this is the best that Face/Off has ever looked.
Equally impressive (if not slightly more so) are the included Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and DTS 6.1 mixes, both of which pack an incredible wallop. Dialogue is clean and clear from start to finish, while the film's numerous action sequences come alive with strong surround activity and plenty of bass to keep your subwoofer happy. There's little else to say here, except that fans of Face/Off will enjoy cranking this up to 11. A French 2.0 dub track is also included, while optional English, French and Spanish subtitles are included during the main feature and bonus material.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the animated menu designs are basic and easy to navigate. The 140-minute main feature has been divided into 40 chapters, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. This two-disc release is housed in an unhinged slim double keepcase; there's no room for an insert, but a matching slipcover is included.
Spread across both discs, the extras for this new edition of Face/Off are surprisingly well-rounded and entertaining. Disc 1 starts off with two feature length Audio Commentaries: one with director John Woo and co-writers Michael Colleary and Mike Werb, and the other with just the two writers. The first obviously focuses more on the director's comments, though Colleary and Werb provide plenty of insight when not fielding questions to Woo. The writer's commentary is a bit more technical, touching on the story development and themes generally unexplored during the first track...along with plenty of anecdotes, of course. Neither commentary lapses into silence very often, but a few stories are repeated along the way.
Also here is a short collection of Deleted & Alternate Scenes (7 clips with optional commentary, 8:18 total), including "Castor Kills the Janitor", "Archer Weeps", "Childhood Lessons", "Hideaway Shootout", "Archer vs. Castor Finale", "Will Dad be Dad Again?" and an alternate ending. It's easy to see why some of this material was cut, but the audio commentary by Woo, Colleary and Werb (recorded separately, in most cases) helps to put everything in the proper context. "Archer Weeps" is probably the only scene that could've been part of the final cut, as this short sequence emphasizes the loss of his son at the hands of Castor. The alternate ending puts a mysterious spin on things, but Face/Off works well enough without the added jolt.
Disc 2 kicks off with "The Light and the Dark: Making Face-Off" (5 parts, 64:02 total), a detailed summary of the film's production. Divided into "Science Fiction / Human Emotion", "Cast / Characters", "Woo / Hollywood", "Practical / Visual Effects" and "Future / Past", there's a nice assortment of cast and crew interviews mixed with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage. Though portions of this documentary seem a bit disjointed---due to the somewhat extraneous section titles, no doubt---"The Light and the Dark" is a satisfying documentary that fans should certainly enjoy. From Woo's original storyboards (above left) to the amazing practical visual effects work, there's plenty of eye candy to gaze upon. Overall, it's a concise and entertaining supplement that partners well with the audio commentaries.
Not to be outdone is "John Woo: A Life in Pictures" (26:06, above right) a relatively short but satisfying documentary about the director's life and work thus far. Featuring plenty of comments by Woo himself, the director shares a few personal stories from his childhood and emphasizes his love for movies, music and art. Most of his recent Hollywood output is touched upon, as are his more notable Hong Kong films. It's a solid enough overview, though most die-hard fans of Woo won't learn many new details.
Closing things out is the film's excellent Theatrical Trailer (2:08), featuring a wonderfully subtle tease that sells the film perfectly. All bonus features are presented in anamorphic widescreen (even the deleted scenes, though a few sequences don't look quite as polished) and everything except the trailer includes optional English, Spanish and French subtitles. It's an entertaining assortment of extras, but the thoughtful presentation makes them all the more satisfying. Compared to the original vanilla disc, fans will be very pleased.
Slick, stylish and over-the-top, John Woo's Face/Off is one of the more memorable action films of the 1990s. The conventional cat-and-mouse story is turned on its ear with the reversal of our protagonist and antagonist---and though the opposites are almost cartoonish in their distinction, the jaw-dropping effects work and action sequences help us forget a few snags along the way. Fans of Woo's Hong Kong epics like The Killer and Hard Boiled should be drawn towards the continued themes of justice and dual identity, making Face/Off more of a return to form than anything else in his domestic canon. Paramount's excellent two-disc Collector's Edition celebrates the film's 10th anniversary in style, boasting a top-notch technical presentation and a host of terrific bonus features. All things considered, this is an extremely affordable double dip and an easy blind buy for action fans. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.