There was a time where John Woo reinvented the action genre. His work in Hong Kong, mostly with star Chow Yun-Fat, blazed new trails in action filmmaking. While most action films of the 80's featured a heavily muscled lead with massive guns (and arms), John Woo orchestrated giddy operas of death and destruction. Highlighted by graceful slow motion passes and dual gun-wielding heroes, Woo's films were absolutely cutting edge. And then, as sometimes happens with foreign filmmakers who reach the upper echelons of their country's cinema, Hollywood came calling. Woo wholeheartedly accepted the opportunity to become part of the Hollywood studio system, and by doing so, effectively ended the best part of his career. I don't quite know what it was, but somehow Woo's work never translated to American shores. It's as if he never quite found the pulse of American action, when in fact he should have been the one creating it as he did in Hong Kong. Of all of his American films, the only one to come close to the dizzying mayhem of his Hong Kong work is Face/Off.
Face/Off begins with FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) riding a carousel with his son. It's at this point where criminal mastermind Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) tries to shoot Sean from long range, but only ends up killing Sean's son. Cut ahead a few years, and now Archer has now committed his life to capturing Castor, no matter what the cost. And he does indeed get his man, much to the relief of his neglected family. But soon after the collar, Sean learns that Castor has set a bomb to go off somewhere in Los Angeles, and only Castor's brother knows where it is, as Castor himself is in a coma. Archer has no idea how to get the information, until a revolutionary method is brought to his attention: Sean can swap faces with Castor. Yes, he could actually take on Castor's actual face and take on his identity to get the information he needs. And it seems to work, until Troy wakes up, and takes Sean's face, destroying all records of the operation. Now Sean, as Castor, must break out of jail and find Castor, as Sean, and take him down, in order to save himself and his family.
If the plot synopsis sounds confusing, then it's to the picture's credit that Face/Off plays out much better on film than it does in print. The root of this is a pair of compelling characters, written by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, and brought to life by John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. Travolta was still riding high from the career resurrection afforded him by Pulp Fiction, and Face/Off is probably his best post-Tarantino performance. Nicolas Cage was also, at the time, just finding fortune as an action star, having appeared in The Rock a year prior. The film caught them both at a time when they were loved by the public, before their career choices took a turn for the worse. The team up felt iconic and generated a level of expectation that, thankfully Woo and company were able to meet.
Make no mistake about it: Face/Off has the most kinetic and satisfying action of all of John Woo's American works. From the larger than life opening sequence at an airport to the Mano-a-Mano ending confrontation, this is the one time where John Woo even came close to the audacious epics that he orchestrated in Hong Kong. In fact, everything about Face/Off feels epic. Perhaps that's why Travolta and Cage's hilariously over the top performances work. When Archer is sent to jail in Troy's place, it's not just any normal prison, but a futuristic sci-fi jail where everyone wears magnetic boots and watches a giant bank of monitors. And the havoc the Woo wreaks is simply fantastic. Gunfights, fistfights, boat fights, harpoon gun fights, it's all here. The whole thing takes on a sense of delirium that is simply breathtaking.
Despite that, there's a few flaws that prevent Face/Off from really taking off. For one thing, why would the doctor who did Archer's surgery agree to place Sean's face on Castor, knowing full well that Troy is an uncontrollable sociopath who would probably kill him, anyway? And do we really need that huge futuristic prison? The magnetic boots and so on really add nothing to the story. And, come to think of it, why do we need so many scenes of Archer in jail anyway? Face/Off runs 138 minutes, and that's at least 20 minutes too many. Granted, some of the scenes are nice character development moments that most action pictures wouldn't even bother writing, let alone shooting and including in the final cut, but I could name several scenes that really do nothing but add bloat to an already long and complicated film.
Still, when Face/Off works, it's really a sight to behold. I don't know what it is that's held John Woo back in America. Perhaps it's poor scripts, or lack of studio support, or maybe just a lack of inspiration (Woo has returned to China for the first time in sixteen years to direct his latest epic, Red Cliff), but that undefinable element is present in Face/Off. No, it's not The Killer, and it's not Hard Boiled, but it's a brief, fleeting, and tantalizing glimpse of how good a mix John Woo's style with American sensibilities could have been.
The Blu-ray Disc: