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With Face/Off, John Woo finally makes a Hong Kong action movie in Hollywood.

By Coury Turczyn

July 8, 1997:  There's this neat little thing John Travolta and Nicolas Cage do in Face/Off, the latest epic of absurd violence by John Woo. Every time they're about to shoot at each other, they do a flip. Let's say Cage is diving across a room for cover as Travolta shoots at him; rather than hit the floor and slide like most people would under such circumstances, Cage actually does something like a mid-air barrel-roll. I'm not precisely sure how a triple-axis will save your ass from automatic machine gun fire, but it's cool--really cool.

Welcome to Woo World. The physical laws of nature and verisimilitude may be flagrantly broken every other minute, but it does so in such a giddily shameless manner that you'll guffaw in complicity. Where most summer movies claim to be a "ride" because they spent $100 million on tired special effects, Woo really does take us on a ride to places that don't exist outside his own odd perceptions of good and evil. It's a universe where heroes and villains are practically interchangeable (or do exactly that, in this case), where bitter grudges are kept for years, where hapless bystanders get gunned down by the busload. Usually, tales of mass destruction by gun-toting lunkheads are about as dramatically arresting as watching a root canal operation (please consult the Schwarzenegger oeuvre). But Woo's characters are almost insanely driven with obsessions that make our own fixations seem merely quaint. You'd call them cartoon-like if they weren't drawn so sharply. Woo's characters go so far beyond the limits of ordinary human endurance, you can't help but keep watching and wondering how much further they'll go. And in Face/Off, they go pretty damn far.

With this, Woo's third Hollywood venture, he has finally signaled a return to his Hong Kong cinema form. After achieving international success with such hyper-gangster films like The Killer and Hard Boiled, Hong Kong's premier director headed to the land of opportunity...only to make Americanized mediocrity like the dull Hard Target and the inane Broken Arrow. With Face/Off, however, Woo is back to doing what he does best: pasting larger than life characters into larger than life themes--with larger than life gun battles.

Face/Off begins as FBI agent Sean Archer (Travolta) tries to trap his arch nemesis, terrorist Castor Troy (Cage) at an airport. Even before the first 10 minutes tick off, more bullets are fired than in the Gulf War. Somehow, Castor, with his twin engraved .45s, can pick off an entire army of SWAT team members before Archer finally fries him with a handy jet engine. Unfortunately, even though Troy is in a permanent coma, the Feds discover that he had managed to plant a massive bomb in downtown Los Angeles. How are they going to figure out where it is?

Here's the bold plan: They decide to peel off Troy's face, stick it on Archer's head, and have him impersonate Troy. Then all he has to do is go to the prison holding Troy's brother, Pollux, and work the bomb location out of him. Sadly, things go awry--and it's then that Face/Off accelerates into the stratosphere. You see, Troy wakes up from his coma, manages to slap on Archer's face, and impersonates him. Gosh, even Batman would have a hard time dealing with that one.


The true entertainment here comes from simply watching Cage and Travolta try to one-up each other with their dueling impersonations. Each of them imitates the other's vocal tics--while grafting them into their characters' imitations of their enemy. For instance: Travolta is supposed to actually be playing Cage's character since they swapped faces; therefore, he hams it up with Cage's trademark bug-eyed screams even though Cage's terrorist is supposed to be imitating Travolta's FBI agent. Er, get it? Never mind--let's just say that Cage is totally unleashed in his most off-the-wall performance yet, while Travolta is clearly having fun pretending to be an off-the-wall Nicolas Cage. There's more ham per square inch here than at Lay's packing plant.

The action sequences are, of course, what bring in the masses, and they won't be disappointed. Woo, as every blurb-quotable critic has pointed out, manages to create gunfights that are more akin to ballets. Face/Off has all the Woo trademarks--split screen views of the hero and villain separated by a thin wall, face-to-face Mexican stand-offs, hundreds of cops standing around getting shot. But it's all on a grand scale, even by Woo standards, with lots of colorful explosions; Hong Kong cultists should be satisfied.

That said, the nonstop killing gets rather grueling by picture's end; after the thousandth innocent bystander gets fragged, you just wish Archer and Troy would hurry up and kill each other to get it over with. There is such a thing as overkill, even in a John Woo movie, and Face/Off treads mighty close. With hands shaking and ears ringing as I left the theater (Do Beavis and Butthead really operate the volume control at Carmike Cinema 10?), I had to wonder: How long will gangster movies remain in vogue? Surely, someday, we'll get tired of watching mass annihilation for cheap thrills. Until then, however, John Woo will certainly make it look good.

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