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Nashville Scene A Face in the Crowd

A (rare) great action movie

By Jim Ridley, Noel Murray, and Donna Bowman

July 8, 1997:  To appreciate Face/Off fully, you have to sit through just one godawful summer action movie. It doesn't matter which one--just close your eyes, spin around, and walk into a theater. Halfway through Con Air, the movie stops dead for a lumbering, poorly staged shoot-out; even though John Malkovich diagrams the entire scene in the sand for our benefit, the shots are slapped together so haphazardly that we still have no clue what's going on. Batman and Robin opens with a klutzy hockey-fight that packs all the thrills of Sesame Street on Ice; the all-thumbs director, Joel Schumacher, reduces even the pokiest fistfight to a spilling suitcase of flying limbs and sprawling bodies. We can't see the people involved, and we don't care why they're slugging one another.

In Face/Off, we know who the antagonists are; we know why they hate each other's guts; and we know why they can't just let their antagonism drop. The marvel is that we find all this out before the opening credits have even finished. Even though it's as farfetched as the genre currently demands, Face/Off is nevertheless a beautiful, exhilarating, and surprisingly touching piece of moviemaking--the work of a director who understands that cinematic excitement must be meticulously prepared and constructed, not just conjured in a cloud of zap and zowie.

Face/Off is the first action movie since the original Die Hard that demands first-rate actors in every major role--and uses them as something more than window dressing. John Travolta plays Sean Archer, a crack antiterrorist agent who has devoted six years of his life to chasing one man: Castor Troy, the flamboyant, diabolical archvillain who cost Archer the life of his son. Travolta broods intensely; Nicolas Cage, strutting like a dirty wrestler, does Troy as a lip-smacking psycho hedonist with a yen for babes and Chiclets.

Through a series of convolutions too crazy to list--but directed briskly enough to overcome their patent lunacy--Archer agrees to assume, through surgery, the face of his captured nemesis so that he can learn the whereabouts of a ticking megaton bomb hidden somewhere in Los Angeles. Literally imprisoned in the identity of his loathsome enemy, Archer is horrified to receive a visitor: Castor Troy, newly outfitted with Archer's face, his identity as a cop--and his unsuspecting wife and teenage daughter.

The astounding stunts and shoot-outs may merit top billing, but the movie wisely focuses on its characters. As much setup as it takes, the way-out premise, cooked up by screenwriters Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, becomes pretty much an acting exercise--a fascinating one. For the rest of the movie, Cage must play the morose Travolta of the movie's first half, and Travolta must step into the role of Cage's wacko hipster. Having two actors this gifted suddenly slip on one another's mannerisms turns the movie's role-playing gimmick into a truly resonant joke.

Of the two, Travolta gets the flashier part. In Archer's body, Troy masquerades as a cartoon hero and a Lifetime Channel dreamboat, and the criminal and the actor playing him swagger through the movie on a high of lewd amusement. But Cage as Archer gives the movie its emotional force. Every time his Archer looks in the mirror, he sees the face of the man who killed his son, and Cage charges through the movie with a father's grief, a husband's rage--and considerable existential confusion. How do you live with becoming everything you hate?

This question lies at the heart of the operatic Hong Kong thrillers that built director John Woo's reputation. To a mass audience, Woo is known less for his own movies than for the facile tricks Hollywood swiped from them--the slow-motion leaps, the heroic gunplay that slaps a blazing weapon in both hands. (These, oddly enough, are the least inspired elements of Face/Off, although they're still pretty sharp.) But in his best films--The Killer, Hard-Boiled, the devastating Vietnam War drama Bullet in the Head--Woo obsesses over the idea of doubles who act out our darkest impulses. In Face/Off, even Archer's troubled wife, portrayed wonderfully by Joan Allen, has an opposite: Troy's tough moll, played with maternal ferocity by the super-cool Gina Gershon.

The line that separates cop from criminal (and good from evil) is hair-trigger thin, and Woo's heroes struggle to remember where they stand. This isn't just tough-guy posing, despite all the gun-waving and toothpick-chewing. In Woo's movies, God is in heaven, not on earth, and in His absence, loyalty and rigid adherence to codes of honor are akin to divinity. Every conflict therefore assumes both an internal and external dimension. Woo's florid religious symbolism makes clear that his heroes are waging a battle for salvation over their fallen selves--a victory over the evil twin in the mirror.

That makes Woo the ideal filmmaker for this story, and he responds with a masterful job of direction. Every shot is visually striking; the many knotted plot threads remain easy to follow; the use of slow-motion and dissolves is as bold as editor Christian Wagner's cross-cutting. And the action scenes! Nobody kicks ass like John Woo at full throttle, and Face/Off includes about a half-dozen action sequences that are at once rhapsodic, thematically expressive, and white-knuckle tense. My favorite (of many) climaxes with Travolta/Cage and Cage/Travolta on opposite sides of a mirror, each staring at the image of the man he hates most--his own reflection.

What's doubly amazing is how clearly Woo envisions the jazziest mayhem. We always know how big a room is, where the principals are in relation to one another, what the forces of conflict are. During the movie's grandiose finish, when a dozen combatants train guns on one another, Woo neatly establishes every gunman's motivation and his position in the room in seconds. He understands that the geometry of a gun battle involves more than lines of fire; it involves crisscrossed loyalties and intersecting motives as well.

Identity crisis Nicolas Cage and John Travolta--or is it the other way around?--poised for a confrontation in Face/Off. Photo by Steven Vaughan.

Like his heroes, Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, Woo expresses social and spiritual conflict through the American cinema's method of choice: balls-out orgiastic bloodshed. If Face/Off has a flaw, apart from its sheer implausibility--Archer's wife isn't going to notice the change in her husband's hands (and God knows what else)?--it's that the incidental violence is way too strong. Woo admirably doesn't sugarcoat onscreen deaths, but you still wince every time some poor bystander gets 187'd like Clyde Barrow.

Perhaps that's why many of the most memorable moments in Face/Off are the quietest--the meeting between Archer and a 6-year-old boy, or the heartbreaking scene in which Archer must meet his wife wearing the face of her son's killer. In its phenomenal action scenes and clever plotting, Face/Off restores vitality and virtuosity to a genre that has lapsed into lame repetition. But it accomplishes something only a handful of blockbusters have managed in the past decade: getting us to give a damn about the action onscreen.--Jim Ridley

Lame bat time

Whenever I read that a filmmaker is making a movie "in a comic-book style," I have to wince. As an avid reader of all genres of comics--superhero, funny animal, dailies, alternative, Archie--I'm aware of how comics can use the simple and iconic to weave narratives of astounding complexity and pathos. But that's not what movie directors are talking about when they say "comic-book style." What they're referring to is an attitude--a broad, outsized sense of design and an ironic, jokey tone. Hollywood's understanding of comic books is a Roy Liechtenstein appropriation of a Jack Kirby panel, not the bold cornball genius of Kirby's original work.

Batman and Robin is the fourth and latest Warner Bros. film based on Bob Kane's 60-year-old superhero creation, and director Joel Schumacher has given the film buckets of Hollywoodized "comic-book style." Which means there's plenty to dazzle the eye but little to touch the soul. George Clooney gives an underwhelming performance as the Caped Crusader, and Chris O'Donnell is repetitively whiny as the boy wonder. Together, they're far from heroic as they attempt to contain a vampish earth-firster named Poison Ivy (played with what-the-hell brio by Uma Thurman) and to subdue Mr. Freeze, a tortured scientist trapped in a refrigerated suit (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in full Rainer Wolfcastle mode).

Batman and Robin looks colorful and stylish, and it has interesting bad guys, but nothing really happens in the film; it's just a series of poorly edited fight scenes. Plot has taken a backseat to the feel of the piece, which is all abstraction and outline passing as action. The movie is the equivalent of doodles in a sketchbook, not real comics.

Then again, Schumacher is merely following the lead of his cinematic predecessors. None of the four Batman films has been good, not even the acclaimed Tim Burton installments. From the very first, the series has been marred by too many characters, too much setup, and not enough story. Where's the clever detective work that the Dark Knight exhibits in the comics? Where's the fear he strikes into Gotham City's petty criminals? Where's his symbiotic relationship with crime, and his antagonistic relationship with the police? And why is it so difficult for Hollywood to tell a good Batman story, when they have six decades of narrative to pull from? At the end of every Batman movie thus far, I've been ready to see a Batman movie.

Maybe it's because the creators of the films have no interest in the actual ink-stained juvenilia that make up the Batman comic book. They're more interested in the idea of Batman and how it can be exploited. Burton used the Batman myth as a framework to hang one of his typically wan, existential "outsider" fashion shows. Schumacher has turned his two passes through Gotham into incomprehensible swirls of mayhem and art direction.

As a result, the highlights of the series have been few--Anton Furst's gothic architecture in Batman, Catwoman's punky, feminist rage in Batman Returns, Val Kilmer's suave take on the title character in Batman Forever, and now the chilling angst of Victor Freeze in Batman and Robin. In fact, this latest episode, though moribund, may be the best of a bad lot, if only because it has the fewest pretensions and the most catchy moments. Freeze's predicament is compelling, and both Alicia Silverstone and Uma Thurman grab the audience's attention as Batgirl and Poison Ivy. There are even a couple of good action sequences, including a car chase down the arm of a statue and a giddy bit of sky-surfing by the Dynamic Duo.

But it's all in service of tone, not text. Batman and Robin's bickering and Mr. Freeze's lame one-liners betray Schumacher's lack of faith in his source material and his overreliance on Hollywood action-film clichs. The experience of Batman and Robin, as with each Batman movie, is not unlike an auto show--the audience sees all the new models, gets a demonstration of what they can do, and then files out quietly without ever being taken for a ride. When all the exposition and shtick was over, I felt like the film was about to begin...and then the lights came up.--Noel Murray

The feminine complex

Ambition usually gets you somewhere with an art-house crowd. They'll sit respectfully through any kind of dreary, pretentious, experimental movie, trying not to fidget while they develop an intellectual appreciation for what the artist is trying to accomplish. For the first half-hour, Female Perversions shows signs of being ambitious, and I was prepared to devote all my energy toward not being bored. But something wonderful happened. Female Perversions, for the most part, gave up trying to be art and became entertaining, funny, and stimulating. Instead of watching the paint dry on an artist's vision for two hours, I got to watch a movie.

The title (and ostensibly the basis) of the film comes from a 1991 book by psychoanalyst Louise J. Kaplan that defines the accepted (i.e. male-defined) social ideal of womanhood as a perversion. Tilda Swinton plays Eve Stevens, a fashionable lawyer on the verge of appointment to a judge's bench. Eve sweats every detail of her upcoming interview with the governor while trying to cope with the threat posed by her replacement in the law office, played by model Paulina Porizkova. At the same time, she constructs impromptu sex fantasies with her architect lover (Clancy Brown) and pursues an affair with a female doctor (Karen Sillas) in her office building. When her sister, Madelyn, played by Amy Madigan, gets arrested, Eve is forced to confront her family, her past--and some truths about herself--on Madelyn's desert homestead.

It's the last bit--the clichd self-realization--that leaves a bad taste in the mouth, both as it unfolds in the final scenes and as it is prefigured in the opening's show-offy artistry. Director and cowriter Susan Streitfeld scrawls epigraphs from her sourcebook in the background, often plastering them somewhere inside the set decoration. How very Godard. The quotations point toward an ideal sort of femininity, one that needs no validation from either sex or from the sexual act, and I suppose Eve achieves something like this uninteresting state in the film's conclusion. Naturally, it involves a secret about her relationship with her father.

Forget about such feminist posturing, and enjoy Swinton's perfect satirical character study. Her Eve puts on all the harsh, unflattering faces of female power and hones them to a sharp comic edge. She takes superiority where she can find it, even if it comes from having the latest lipstick shade before her rivals. Sex is a means to an end: When the female doctor mentions that she wants more out of a relationship than physical love, Eve responds like someone pretending to understand a foreign language. Swinton elicits laughter with the slight stiffening of her face or the furrowing of her brow as Eve's scheming brain processes a perceived threat. She creates an entirely original character, one who works so hard on her image that womanhood itself becomes just another role. It's one of the finest performances of the year.

One real actor is worth a thousand captions, and Swinton, even when silent, reveals much more about a woman's self-image than words ever could. The set design creates a sterile, empty space around her, consistent with her minimalist taste but also evocative of her shallow loneliness. Long scenes in these stark environments induce the kind of excited vertigo last felt in Todd Haynes' Safe, but without that film's glacial pacing. It's too bad that Female Perversions wants to wrap up its story with a final epiphany, telegraphed with misplaced surreal touches and arty dream sequences to boot. But these obvious signs of ambition can't obscure the old-fashioned satire at the movie's heart.--Donna Bowman

Female Perversions runs at the Belcourt through Thursday.

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