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Face/Off
1997 - R - 138 Mins.
Director: John Woo
Producer: Michael Douglas and David Permut and Barrie M. Osborne and Raul Julia-Levy and Christopher Godsick and Terence Chang
Written By: Mike Werb and Michael Colleary
Starring: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Alessandro Nivola, Gina Gershon
Review by: John Ulmer
   

Oh, god, it's "Deliverance" all over again!
All action films should be as utterly exhilarating as "Face/Off." Alas, the majority of them (I'd say 99%) are nothing but worthless retreads of iconic films such as "Alien," "The Terminator," "Lethal Weapon," "Speed," "The Matrix," etc. Originality isn't one of Hollywood's strongest traits these days.

I'm the guy who's seen it all: Big explosions, car chases, over-exaggerated slow-motion stunts done with poorly-conceived visual effects. In short, I've seen just about everything there is to see in an action film.

But here's a movie that made me sit back in my seat and stare in awe. It's hard to explain why, exactly, "Face/Off" works so very well. With a less talented director than John Woo behind the project, this could have turned into an undistinct, boring action flick with a poor idea and poor execution.

Woo makes the silly idea seem quite convincing. In fact, the plot reminds me of an Andrew Niccol movie--original, fun, and seriously flawed. But the flaws aren't explained and it's better that way. Nothing in "Face/Off" could ever be done with a few surgical incisions--but the movie doesn't care about that, and neither do we.

The movie is about two archenemies who switch faces. There's Sean Archer (John Travolta), an FBI agent/family man, and Caster Troy (Nicolas Cage). Archer is gruff and strict when it comes to his job; co-workers cower as they see him enter the room. When he is delivered a bottle of champagne after capturing Troy, he sends it away. The job isn't finished yet, so why should there be any celebrations?

Years ago, Troy tried to assassinate Archer but ended up killing his son, instead. For years, Archer has had a personal vendetta to bring down Troy--but it's been hard. Troy is a sly devil, and in the opening sequence, he is finally knocked out by Archer and sent to a maximum security hospital.

The problem is that prior to his capture, Troy planted a devastatingly powerful bomb inside a building somewhere in the city. The FBI can't figure out where it was hidden, and so Archer volunteers to follow through with a top-secret plan: He switches faces with Troy, so that he can be put in jail with Troy's brother, who helped him plant the bomb. After figuring out where it is, he can then return to his old face.

The switching of the faces is done with the type of cosmetic surgery that aging Hollywood beauties would love to have: The doctor and his team make incisions, pull off the two guys' faces, and then sow them onto each other. Then they take away body fat and put in some hair implants--everything to make the two guys look like each other.

Archer--with Troy's face--is sent to prison and collects the information from Troy's brother. But trouble arises, because before Archer can switch faces again, he finds out that tragedy struck the lab where everything was performed: The doctor is dead, and so are all the people who knew about the operation. The only person alive is Caster Troy--wearing Archer's face.

Left stranded in prison, with Troy posing as himself back on the outside (living with his family, playing FBI man), Archer (with Troy's face) escapes from prison and tries to warn his family about who is playing daddy. But it's hard to do, since his own wife thinks he's someone who killed their only son.

That's where the film really succeeds; it has some great ideas, and the very thought of becoming the man you hate and then being stuck in prison for your whole life, living out his life sentence, is gut-wrenching. When you first see Troy enter the prison with Archer's face and parade around in front of a chained Archer, it really makes you feel queasy.

This is an extravagant and amazing action film, and the last great John Woo movie ever made before he became a commercialized Hollywood hack (no offense, Woo, but "Windtalkers" sucked).

Cage and Travolta are great at playing each other--Travolta turns on the charm factor when he's imitating Cage, and Cage turns on the overwhelmed everyman as he's playing Travolta. Bad acting really could have harmed a film like "Face/Off." Here, it only makes an already excellent action movie even better.
 
Movie Guru Rating
An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant.
  4.5 out of 5 stars

 
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