John Woo

With its wacky face-switching premise and delirious action scenes, John Woo's 'Face/Off' (starring Nicolas Cage and John Travolta) is the summer's best blockbuster.

Published July 27, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

nobody's making love stories these days like John Woo.

And nobody's making action movies like him, either. Because the sad truth is that action pictures and love stories, two of the most tried-and-true movie formulas, have lately become the most flaccid. The explosions get bigger, louder and dumber, but they're ultimately about as ineffectual (and as false) as a tube sock stuffed down a pair of Jockeys. Romantic comedies are rife with ordinarily fine actresses trying try to worm their way into our hearts with their incessant winkling and twinkling. Action sequences are directed so badly you can't figure out what's taking place where; love scenes are so uninspired you're not sure the characters have any idea what to put where. You say po-tay-to, and I say po-tah-to. Let's call the getting off off.

But then there's Woo's "Face/Off." Florid, passionate, frequently hilarious and loaded with messy emotions that nobody in his or her right mind should even attempt to explain, it's operatic in its nutball intensity. It's also the first of Woo's American movies to match the flipped-out exhilaration, the rippling looseness, of the marvelous action movies he directed in his native Hong Kong, like "The Killer" and "Hard Boiled." "Face/Off" is the big love story of the summer, but it's not your standard one. The classic John Woo moment -- you see it in almost every one of his movies -- is the instant when, after a vicious scramble, villain and hero right themselves simultaneously and suddenly train their weapons on each other, each gun barrel aimed squarely at the forehead of the other. These stare-downs are Woo's big love scenes, half crazed mating dance and half passionately refined tango. They represent the crystalline moment when a hero and a villain recognize that their inability to comprehend each other is really just one big turn-on.

In "Face/Off," Woo adds another layer of complexity: The two leads, John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, play dual heroes and dual villains. Loose-cannon bad guy Castor Troy (Cage) accidentally kills the young son of FBI tough guy and honeybun Sean Archer (Travolta); six years later, the embittered Archer is still out for Troy's blood. When Archer finally takes Troy down in an airplane hangar (after one hell of a runway chase involving Hummers, helicopters and a private jet), he thinks he's finally wrestled his demon to the ground, and just maybe he'll be able to return to a normal life with his long-suffering wife (Joan Allen) and spunky teenage daughter (Dominique Swain).

But it turns out that Castor Troy isn't dead after all (he's been kept alive, if comatose, in a fancy-schmancy plastic surgery ward), and he and his psycho-nerd brother, Pollux (played with arch loopiness by Alessandro Nivola), have arranged for a really scary germonuclear bomb-type thing to go off somewhere, sometime, in downtown Los Angeles. Pollux has been locked away in a maximum-security prison, but he's so paranoid that he trusts no one. The only way Archer can find out when and where the bomb is set to go off is to subject himself to a new, super-secret kind of laser surgery, in which Troy's face will be grafted onto his so he can earn the confidence of Pollux and locate the bomb.

Of course, Troy manages to wake up from his coma, and, after discovering that his face is now just a mass of cherry Jell-O, sends his evil henchman to find the surgeon. Archer's face, temporarily stored in a bowl of water like an extra set of false teeth, gets fitted over Troy's Jell-O mass, the surgeon (the only guy on the planet, by the way, who knows the secret face-switching technique) is summarily executed, and pandemonium ensues.

What this means is that Cage, previously introduced to us as a glassy-eyed psycho-killer who wears silk shirts and flashy scorpion cufflinks, is now a nice guy trying to fool people into thinking he's a killer. And Travolta, previously a conscientious but somewhat rigid family man, is now a killer in a nice guy's skin. (As he scopes out his "new" wife's tush, he purrs, "I hate to see you go -- I love to watch you leave.") What's brilliant about the performances is that both Travolta and Cage know how to play both crazies and moony-eyed old softies, and they try on each other's mannerisms as if they were party hats, even as they follow their own instincts.

When Cage-as-Archer-as-Troy sees Troy's young son for the first time, his liquid brown eyes are pure Cage, but there's a sudden softness about him that conjures Travolta's dove-soft earnestness. And when Travolta-as-Troy-as-Archer happens upon Archer's scrumptious teenage daughter dressed in nothing more than panties, he mimics perfectly Cage's shambling devil-in-disguise gait. But neither actor turns his performance into a cheap imitation of the other: Each lets his true self shine through, like light through a rice-paper shade. They complement each other perfectly, the way lovers in a romantic comedy know precisely how to drive each other crazy, as if the rules for doing so had been written on their souls at birth.

But mostly, Woo just wants to invite us to splash around in his little birdbath of violence, carnage and mayhem, and the offer is irresistible. No director since Peckinpah has directed action sequences so lovingly. When a man's hit by gunfire, he doesn't merely plop and shudder: His body may spin like a bent pinwheel or fly by in a last-minute Gene Kelly leap.

Woo's he-man instincts are always balanced by his big-as-Texas sentimentality. When Cage-as-Archer-as-Troy returns to his old hangout, Travolta-as-Troy-as-Archer ambushes him, and Troy's long-lost young son, dressed for bed in footed pajamas, is caught in the gunfire. His mother (Gina Gershon, striking a lovely balance between tender and tough) places headphones over his ears so he won't be so frightened by the noise as she attempts to move him to safety. Just as the battle reaches a terrifying intensity, the gunfire drops to near silence -- it seems to have suddenly been bleached out -- and we hear "Over the Rainbow" swell up in its place, played out through the kid's headphones as if they were covering our ears. We see bodies roll and quiver through their magnificent last moments, set against a song that's so often abused and contorted to represent the most banal conception of "movie magic."

But Woo knows exactly what he's doing, and here the music serves a sneakier purpose: In daring to reawaken the wonder that the movies are supposed to inspire in us, Woo intensifies our awareness of the violence. It's his way of saying, "Stay tuned in; don't numb out" -- a way of reminding us that the movies can still be a pretty potent drug. Woo, his instincts sure and swift, always knows where to put the camera. Maybe he shoots from between his legs much of the time. But he never forgets where the heart is.


By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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