movie film review | chris tookey

Face/ Off

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  Face/ Off Review
Tookey's Rating
6 /10
Average Rating
7.60 /10
Sean Archer ............ John Travolta , Castor Troy ............ Nicolas Cage , Eve Archer ............. Joan Allen
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Directed by: John Woo
Written by: Mike Werb and Michael Colleary

Released: 1997
Origin: US
Length: 140


It starts off from a refreshingly original premise - that a counter-terrorist (John Travolta, pictured right) might agree to borrow the face of his own worst enemy, Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage, pictured left), with the aid of plastic surgery, in order to enter a maximum-security prison in disguise and extract vital information about the planting of a bomb from the bad guy’s convict brother, Pollux Troy (Alessandro Nivola). Naturally, the bad guy then wakes from his seemingly irreversible coma, steals the good guy’s face (so the bad guy is now played by John Travolta) and murders everyone who knows that the good guy (now played by Nicolas Cage) is really the bad guy, and vice versa.

Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Fortunately, all this is a lot less confusing to watch than it is to describe, and the leading actors have a lot of fun, stealing and exaggerating each other’s mannerisms. Travolta has the better end of the deal, because he spends more time being a slimeball; but Cage, after an irritatingly fidgety start as Mr Nasty, is almost as effective as the anguished law-enforcer imprisoned behind a bad guy’s face.
Face/Off was promoted, with no hint of false modesty, as the best action movie ever. Driven by the star power of John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, it was a big hit. There was no denying either that Hong Kong director John Woo can organise thrilling chases and balletic scenes of violence. As a succession of action climaxes, Face/Off rivals previous winners in its genre, Die Hard 3 and True Lies . Few will see it and be bored.
But the movie falls down in several crucial areas, one of which is motivation. Why is Castor Troy a terrorist? The only explanation offered by the character is that he likes to blow things up because "it's fun." This kind of characterisation may be permissible in a strip-cartoon, but not in a movie like this, which elsewhere has pretensions to psychological depth.
Nor does the hero’s situation stand up to scrutiny. The fact that he is motivated by personal revenge - six years previously, Castor murdered his five year-old son - would long since have resulted in his being taken off the case, not put in charge of it.
The hero’s actions make no sense. Early on, he seems motivated by thoughts of public service, and he’s sensitive to the slaughter of his colleagues. But with a different face, he suddenly has no qualms about murdering countless prison warders and law-enforcers who are only doing their job, to say nothing of innocent bystanders. Even more outrageously, all the carnage he has created is overlooked by the legal authorities.
If the story had been set in some dehumanised, amoral future, we might be able to swallow this more easily, along with the idea that faces can be swopped between people instantaneously, without visible stretch marks or indications of surgery - especially hard to accept, since Cage’s whippet-like head-shape isn’t remotely the same as Travolta’s, which increasingly resembles that of a mastiff which has been gorging itself on pasta
The final scene - skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t wish to know that the good guy wins through - asks us to believe no fewer than six unbelievable things simultaneously: that our hero can undergo plastic surgery twice and come out looking fresh-faced and unscarred; that his loving wife and daughter will not have visited him in hospital; that they do not collect him from the hospital nor know when he will be released; that he would spring an adopted son on them without warning; that US adoption authorities might not question the advisability of his adopting the son of a terrorist who has murdered his natural son.
Even more insultingly, we are asked to believe that Dad’s transformation into a mass- killer has cured his family of being dysfunctional. Dad is no longer a workaholic. Mum is no longer frigid. Even the daughter’s make-up and dress-sense have improved. The message is clear: violence is good for you and your family.
Perhaps I am being unreasonable in expecting a modern Hollywood blockbuster to make sense. But I think a film is straying on to the wilder shores of silliness when it allows a notorious terrorist to disco-dance through an LA conference centre, dressed as a Catholic priest, and openly grope a young woman chorister while singing an out-of-tune accompaniment to the Hallelujah Chorus, and somehow not be noticed.
Equally unbelievable is the violence. This is yet another movie where the bad guys can’t shoot straight, or the hero would be dead hundreds of times over. There’s the most ghoulish scene of plastic surgery since Eyes Without a Face, and - as in all John Woo’s films - violence is glorified, glamorised and fetishised. He reduces the cinema screen to an amoral killing field. He’s the Busby Berkeley of bloodshed.
Nor is he original. Woo’s favourite trick of using slow motion to extend moments of bullets tearing through flesh, people catching fire, or bodies smashing through glass, has been a cliche for over twenty years. Sam Peckinpah did it first, and with at least the pretence of a moral purpose.
Face-Off is a dumb and dumbing movie which banks on its audience being too immature, stupid or fashion-conscious to see through its smart, polished facade. It’s glossy, well acted and, if approached in an uncritical spirit, entertaining. The uncomfortable question remains, however, whether this kind of desensitised trash is beyond criticism - or beneath it.

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