Of all the John Woo movies I’ve seen, The Killer is the most fascinating. It is difficult to watch because of all the blood and violence, but it seems Woo chose violence as his medium, not his message. The violence is the texture of the movie, not the movie itself.
Reservoir Dogs, 1992, Quentin Tarantino, for an American tribute to early John Woo films, and because it appears to have been visually quoted in Face/Off.
Since coming to America, his movies seem pretty tame by comparison. I haven’t seen his first U.S. film, Hard Target, but Broken Arrow and Face/Off both seem much more polished and mainstream than The Killer. Woo still includes tons of bullets, big explosions, and thematic descants that float above the violence on-screen, but the violence is no longer non-stop. It is no longer the canvas; it is now the flourish.
In trying to appreciate Woo on his own level, it seemed that his whole purpose, like Quentin Tarantino’s in Reservoir Dogs, was to take the violence inherent in the action genre and carry it so far that no action movie could ever be viewed the same again. Rather than continuing that experiment, Woo is now just making action movies.
Woo does have a talent for making action movies, and many of his signature pieces grace Face/Off. One brutal gunfight is partially shown from a child’s point of view, both visually and aurally, giving the scene an emotionally confusing feel. There’s also plenty of Woo’s trademark, a mutually-assured-destruction standoff, each participant holding a gun to the other’s head.
Face/Off is smarter than many other action movies, but it lacks heart. It’s interesting to ponder, but it doesn’t suck you in.
Sean Archer (John Travolta) works for a secret anti-terrorism branch of the government. He’s tracking Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), a notorious criminal who has planted a bomb somewhere in L.A. After losing a game of cat-and-mouse, Castor goes into a coma, unable to talk (and therefore, unable to tell Archer the location of the bomb). Archer’s last hope is to somehow convince Castor’s brother Pollux to talk.
Like their mythological namesakes, Castor and Pollux are very close brothers, and Archer knows Pollux would never squeal. A new “morphogenetic” mask, however, along with a computer chip implanted in the larynx, would allow Archer to perfectly adopt the look and sound of Castor, allowing Archer to get close enough to Pollux to learn the location of the bomb. A modern-day Trojan horse.
The plot takes an interesting twist when Castor wakes up without a face. He and his cronies strongarm the doctors into putting Archer’s face onto Castor, and now the roles are completely reversed, and the bad guys have the upper hand.
It really does sound like it should be a good movie, and there are lots of details that are well executed. For example, Nicolas Cage does a wonderful job at playing John Travolta. All of the facial expressions we got used to in Get Shorty and Pulp Fiction are copied exactly by Cage. During a later standoff, Castor and Archer have trapped each other on opposite sides of a mirror, an interesting metaphor for their switcheroo. The Trojan War references that run through the movie are interesting too — It was an archer who found the weakness in and killed Achilles; pay attention to how Archer finally finishes off his nemesis.
In fact, there are many aspects of Face/Off that can be praised, from the careful costume design (Cage wears a big black billowing cape and a blood red silk shirt), to the cool gross face effects.
But one has to wonder if Woo’s talent doesn’t translate to Hollywood as well as it could. The speed boat sequence at end was top notch, but the stunt doubles didn’t really match the actors (it’ll play better on your TV). The fight scenes were more edited and less choreographed than I expected and hoped from Woo. Worst of all, Face/Off lacks that essential spark that draws you in and makes you care about the outcome of the movie.
I’m starting to wonder if Woo is slipping or if I’m remembering his Hong Kong films too flatteringly.