The title of John Woo's Face/Off is meant to be taken literally. John Travolta and Nicolas Cage play adversaries who swap faces. Here's how: FBI agent Sean Archer (Travolta) has been single-mindedly tracking terrorist nut Castor Troy (Cage) ever since Castor's botched assassination attempt six years earlier, in which he killed Archer's five-year-old son. Following a smash-and-grab destructo orgy, Archer finally puts Castor into an apparently irreversible coma--but there's a hitch. Only Castor's brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola), in a maximum-security lock-up, knows the location of a biological weapon Castor planted somewhere in Los Angeles, and the bomb's set to incinerate the city in six days.
In order to locate the whereabouts of the bomb, Archer must impersonate Castor and coax the information from the imprisoned Pollux. This means assuming not only his identity but his mug--courtesy of a space-age medical technology that removes both Castor's and Archer's faces. Archer's is preserved in a saline solution, while Castor's is mapped onto Archer's.
But Castor revives from his coma and takes on Archer's face--and life. With no one left alive to suspect the switch, Castor rides high as Archer, while the real Archer is locked in prison with Castor's face--a double imprisonment. Archer looks in the mirror and sees his own worst enemy; meanwhile, the enemy sleeps with his wife (Joan Allen) and, with the full backing of the FBI, plots his extinction.
This plot may be serpentine, but uncoil it and you get a baroque variant on a standard acting-school exercise. Essentially Face/Off is about John Travolta and Nicolas Cage impersonating each other's acting style. What is fascinating here is that the actors go beyond gimmickry; they appear to be impersonating each other's essence. Somehow, they take in whatever is special about the other actor and then--effortlessly, mysteriously--let it come through their own features and intonations.
Face/Off wouldn't work without two great actors, and it doesn't always work with them. But their gifts justify the whole loony enterprise. Watching their performances is like looking at a pair of double-images: You have to keep reminding yourself of the peekaboo guises, and the effort keeps you locked into the movie.
Still, I dread the deep-dish dithyrambs about this film that no doubt will litter the magazine pages of Sight and Sound and Film Comment in coming months. Face/Off is John Woo's third Hollywood movie, but it's his first to really connect to his most flamboyantly outrageous Hong Kong films. It's the film in which Hollywood finally lets Woo be Woo, and, among other things, this means we sink once again into the mythic mire. Even though the script by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary predates Woo's involvement, it has all the earmarks of vintage Woo--especially the hero-villain duality bit.
But the notion that goodness and depravity coexist in both heroes and villains isn't such a big wow. It's the kind of tony kitsch conceit that book and movie crime thrillers have been playing around with ever since the pulpsters glommed onto Robert Louis Stevenson. In Face/Off the conceit doesn't resonate thematically, because psychologically neither Archer nor Castor really crosses over into the opposing camp. They don't bring out the best/worst in each other.
On the contrary, Castor is having a high old time using the FBI's clout to wreak revenge, and his entrance into the chambers of his nemesis is super-smarmy. He obliquely comes on to Archer's punkette daughter Jamie, played by Dominique Swain, the Lolita in the upcoming Adrian Lyne version of the Nabokov novel; yet he's also a better, more attentive, and more protective father than Archer--a man so haunted by the death of his son he has all but ignored his daughter. It's also implied that Archer's wife is intriguingly perplexed by her bedmate's newfound studliness.
Archer, for his part, doesn't get high on the mayhem he foments within the prison and without. He doesn't locate within himself a depravity to match his enemy's. And so the mythic soul swap in Face/Off doesn't really come off. Basically we're looking at two amazing actors riffing off each other, and that should be enough. All the rest is window dressing--except, of course, Woo is so busy shattering windows, it's easy to get sidetracked into thinking there's more going on here than meets the bloodshot eye.
Not that I mind some pretentiousness in my pulp--it makes it go down easier. When the screenwriters call the two brothers Castor and Pollux Troy, the wink-wink reference to the twin sons of Leda and Zeus and brothers of Helen of Troy is a prime piece of smarty-pants gamesmanship (even though the twinning is really between Sean and Castor). You can wile away your time at John Woo movies pulling out mythic patterns, because he builds them right into the plot. He also works in Catholic symbology: In Face/Off he stages a climactic shoot-out in a church.
But I think Woo employs religious and mythic artifacts primarily as visual tropes. He's such an ecstatically "cinematic" artist that the tropes come from his way of seeing, rather than from some heavy-set philosophic ruminations. His violent action imagery can be so charged that we ascribe more to it than really is there. It's our way of buying off the disreputable pleasures of his free-form shoot-'em-ups, which are more baroque and blood-splattered than just about anyone else's. What we get off on in Face/Off isn't the Kierkegaardian cloud formations, but the sight of Cage and Travolta in their matching Armani suits and shades wielding gold-dipped .45 pistols with dragon grips. Who can resist such a fashion statement?
Woo's sources are the American pulp noirs and, of course, such directors as Sam Peckinpah and Akira Kurosawa. But, like Brian De Palma riffing Alfred Hitchcock, he's driven to go beyond his models and be even crazier than they ever were. In a movie like Hard-Boiled, in which he stages a virtuoso bloodbath in a Hong Kong hospital, Woo is gaga for the poetry of slo-mo death throes. He's so passionate about it that he goes beyond pulp into a kind of grotesque gorgeousness. With Peckinpah, there was always an ambivalence built into his violent set-pieces, but Woo openly courts--and satisfies--our primal desire to see people pulverized. Even five years ago, his brand of mayhem might have seemed too way-out for American audiences, but because of the increasingly heightened violence in our own movies--and especially because of the Hong Kong movie influence in the films of Quentin Tarantino--Woo may soon be anointed as Hollywood's new crown prince of aestheticized gore.
The imprimatur of Travolta and Cage helps buy off the high gore quotient for mainstream audiences. By now we've become accustomed to both of them appearing, separately, in action flicks that normally would go to stalwart mediocrities. With the older generation of action stars such as Stallone and Schwarzenegger growing too long in the tooth to deliver or dodge missiles, and with action movies more than ever the ticket to international stardom, we're seeing a new and funkier breed of action star, with Cage and Travolta leading the pack. One of the few perverse pleasures of Con Air was watching Cage, along with all those other brainy high-style overqualified actors such as John Malkovich and John Cusack, bopping about in a Jerry Bruckheimer blow-'em-up-real-good no-brainer. Cage is next set to star as the Man of Steel in Tim Burton's Superman film; Travolta has already appeared in a Woo film, Broken Arrow, in which he played a mercenary nut not unlike Castor in Face/Off.
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So far, at least, these actors haven't played out their action-figure incarnations simply as paydays. They try to put more into these roles than we're accustomed to--even if that "more," in the case of, say, Cage in Con Air, is just a drawling bull-goose eccentricity. At least it's different. When these actors goof, they're still more enjoyable than the dead-head mediocrities.
Because Travolta and Cage do more than dally in Face/Off, there's a compelling strangeness about what they're up to; it speaks to the strangeness at the heart of acting, where you are required to be yourself and yet be someone else. If Travolta comes across as the more obviously effective of the two impersonators, it's only because Cage presents a more definable personality for the actor to inhabit. He's more easily imitable.
Travolta is a more amorphous screen personality--that's what makes him such an original presence. How do you capture the essence of a chameleon? That's what Cage is confronted with here, and he succeeds by plugging into an essential sweetness in Travolta, an impassioned frailty. Travolta returns the compliment by extending Cage's maniacal glee into more rarefied realms than even Cage himself has gone. It's a sight to see.
John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Nick Cassavetes, Alessandro Nivola, Gina Gershon. Written by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary. Directed by John Woo. Opens Friday.