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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Face/Off (1997)



Reviews and Comments

More like his Hong Kong efforts than his prior American films, John Woo's Face/Off contains the usual insane levels of gunfire and melodrama. Like all of Woo's films, they are simultaneously ultra-violent and anti-violent. He shows what really happens when violence occurs, not what movies generally do. And like all his other films, the violence -- effective and well choreographed in its own right -- becomes a distraction from the plot. The violence numbs the mind as much as the plot engages it. It's exciting, non-stop entertainment, sure, but with it comes a price. Foremost on my mind is, does Woo's anti-violence message really work? I really don't think so. What is shocking and upsetting today is glorified and cherished tomorrow. The sorrowful effects of violence seen in Face/Off and Woo's other work, are not sufficiently discernible from the purposeless sad melodrama in inferior films with less to say.

Lest I emphasize this point too much, I must stop myself and state that Face/Off is actually a very fine film. It's violence may not do what Woo wanted it to, but those in the audience with the stomachs to handle it should find it tense and exciting. But the real reason to see the film is for its story, and the two greatly successful and charismatic leads that pull it off. John Travolta plays the goodguy. Nicolas Cage plays the badguy. Each are after the other. The catch is that, through plot developments I will not explain (suffice it to say they pull this unlikely scenario off in a reasonably believable fashion), they swap faces and identities. The goodguy ends up being the one in jail, and the badguy hoops it up living the goodguy's life, both at home and in the office. The irony is that Travolta and Cage each play both characters -- keeping this in mind, many scenes take on a deeper level of meaning. And it is pleasantly surprising how much intelligence there is stemming off from this essentially ludicrous premise.

The stars have a blast with their roles, and it is they who make the film as enjoyable as it is. It is Woo's best American work and possibly his best ever. I like the film, despite acquiring a nagging emotional distaste for its heavy-handed violence shortly afterward. I'm sure this was an intended reaction, but is it a desirable one? Whatever the answer, Face/Off is definitely not for everyone.