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Review: 'Face/Off' deserves more than lip service

Face/Off June 29, 1997
Web posted at: 4:52 p.m. EDT (2052 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- John Woo's "Face/Off," starring Nicolas Cage and John Travolta, is a big, fat, dumb summer action movie that's nowhere near as big, fat, and dumb as you might expect. That's not to say that it's small, svelte, and intelligent, but it occasionally comes within shouting distance of possessing some smarts. I won't pretend that I completely enjoyed it, but it certainly has a few elements that I've never seen before. Action aficionados will undoubtedly slobber all over themselves.

Film buffs already know Woo as the King of the Hong Kong action directors. Cultists like Quentin Tarantino have been praising him (and ripping him off) for quite some time now, but it wasn't until last year's "Broken Arrow" that Woo made his presence widely known to the American movie-going public. Too bad that "Broken Arrow" was such a by-the-numbers piece of Hollywood kaboom-boom.

Anyone who's seen such Woo classics as "The Killer" and "Hard-Boiled" knows that the man can direct a shoot-out as if it's an opera, like Sergio Leone on steroids. "Hard-Boiled" contains just about the finest prolonged action sequence I've ever seen, during which two men shoot up an entire floor of a hospital, get on the elevator, take a brief ride, step out, and shoot up another entire floor ... and it's all done in one continuous, monumentally impressive shot. No cutting. Now I may start slobbering.

There's nothing anywhere near that great in "Face/Off," but there's still a few scenes that are as awe-inspiring as anything you'll ever gawk at in this long-ago corrupted genre. However, as exciting as these sequences are, I still think the main draw is the pairing of John Travolta and Nicolas Cage as opposing gunslingers. In mass appeal fashion, they chew up the scenery like pit bulls gettin' down on some car upholstery in a Kmart parking lot.

When the movie opens, we see Cage (as the improbably named superterrorist Castor Troy) shooting Travolta and his 5-year-old son off of a merry-go-round with a high-powered rifle. Travolta winds up with a huge boo-boo, but the kid is dead. This is a quick way of informing the audience that Cage is a bad guy; I'll bet he doesn't even recycle.

Trailer from "Face Off"
video icon 4.6MB/2 Min 30 sec. QuickTime movie
1.1MB/25 sec. QuickTime movie

Then we leap ahead six years. Travolta (as government superagent Sean Archer) is the head of a task force committed to capturing Troy. It doesn't take long before Woo is pulling out all the stops, staging a scene in which about 50 police cars chase Cage's jet down a runway while it's taking off. This doesn't stop him (who actually thought it would?), so Travolta commandeers a helicopter and tries slamming it into the rear of the jet. This works all too well, as the jet winds up crashing into a huge hangar. Then Travolta and Cage have one of Woo's patented four-pistol shoot-outs.

This is where the supposedly brainy twists of the movie come into play, but they're so ludicrous you just have to bite the bullet and accept them as a necessary evil. While Cage is in a coma (the only time he doesn't overact), Travolta agrees to have Cage's face surgically attached to his own head so that he can go to prison and convince Cage's convict brother to tell him where a very dangerous bomb has been planted. Oh, yeah -- the floor of the prison is a huge magnetic field, and all the inmates wear metal boots that can be locked into place with the flick of a switch. Oh, also -- Cage comes out of his coma (sans face) and has his henchmen hold a gun on the government surgeon while he attaches Travolta's visage to Cage's own oozy head. The movie evidently takes place in 1997 by way of The Jetsons.

Travolta and Cage then get to play each other playing each other, if you can follow that. Travolta actually manages to have some fun with this. Some of the best scenes in the movie come when Travolta (as the bad guy pretending to be the good guy) starts loosening the reins on his rebellious teen-age daughter by offering her cigarettes and giving her a nasty-looking knife that she can use to stab overzealous suitors in their thighs. He also becomes a sexual dynamo around his wife (Joan Allen, who is supremely talented and doesn't need to be fooling around with a secondary role in something like this). Cage (as Travolta being Cage) isn't so lucky, mainly because Cage himself isn't so lucky. When he's good, he's good, but Cage goes way over the top way too often. In "Face/Off," he bares his teeth and sorta yodels every now and then.

The movie starts ending after about 90 minutes, and continues to end, over and over again, for another hour. The best ending is the next-to-the-last one, during which Travolta and Cage turn somersaults and shoot at each other in a church full of swooping, flapping birds. Don't ask me what birds are doing flying around inside a church, but it sure looks cool. This is probably the most graceful display of Woo's talents that you'll find in one of his American films. It makes dross like the "Lethal Weapon" series look like a home movie.

If you can stand the violence (and, let me tell you, this baby is violent), "Face/Off" may be the only action movie this year that non-action fans will even partially enjoy. Just try to ignore how damn silly it all is.

Hundreds of people get shot, kicked, gouged, punched, stabbed, and immolated in "Face/Off." One person gets run over by a jumbo jet. No sex to speak of, if that helps. Rated R. 150 minutes, but feels longer than "Roots."

 
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