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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Face/Off

Starring: Nicolas Cage, John Travolta
Director: John Woo
Rated: R
RunTime: 138 Minutes
Release Date: June 1997
Genres: Action, Suspense, Thriller

*Also starring: Gina Gershon, Joan Allen, Alessandro Nivola, Nick Cassavetes, Harve Presnell, Colm Feore, John Carroll Lynch, Robert Wisdom, Margaret Cho

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Review by MrBrown
4 stars out of 4

After two mediocre films in the past four years, Hong Kong action maestro John Woo has finally, truly, arrived in the United States with his third American feature, the dazzlingly kinetic and wonderfully complex thriller Face/Off.

The complicated plotline by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary defies any brief explanation. FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta), after years of obsessive pursuit, finally captures the murderer of his young son Michael, Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), but not before Castor leaves one final calling card--a large bomb waiting to detonate at an undisclosed Los Angeles location. With Castor near death in a hospital, the only way to find out the bomb's location is from Castor's imprisoned brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola), but the task is much easier said than done. To gain Pollux's unconditional trust, Sean, through the use of a revolutionary surgery technique, literally becomes Castor, adopting the criminal's face, voice, and body. Needless to say, when the true Castor wakes up from his coma, things get even more complicated. The newly free Castor (now played by Travolta), wearing Sean's face, voice, body, and identity, shakes up the FBI--not to mention the lives of Sean's wife Eve (Joan Allen, again impressive) and rebellious daughter Jamie (Dominique Swain)--as the true Sean (now played by Cage), incognito as Castor, sits in prison.

What ensues is a most intriguing acting exercise for Travolta and Cage, who spend most of the movie playing the other's role, not to mention the other's persona. It's a tricky, ambitious gimmick, and its success is absolutely critical to the film--if it fails, so does the whole movie. But in the capable hands of two consummate actors like Travolta and Cage, under the direction of an underrated acting director like Woo, the switch succeeds brilliantly. Each actor nails the other's mannerisms and speech rhythms so perfectly, that it is never difficult to keep track of who's who; one really does believe that each character is trapped in the other's body. Travolta has the showier part, playing the over-the-top, oddball villain with gusto, but it is Cage who really impresses, striking no false notes in the more difficult, subtle, emotional role.

Woo's claim to fame is his delirious action scenes, and in Face/Off moreso than any other of his American features, he is able to show off his fresh, wildly imaginative approach to mayhem--elaborate choreography, standoffs, flashy editing, etc. Woo fans dismayed by the watered-down pyrotechnics in Hard Target and Broken Arrow will be relieved by the spectacular action sequences in this film. One standout sequence, where Olivia Newton-John's cover of "Over the Rainbow" plays while a defenseless young boy watches numerous people getting shot to death, is the type of hypnotic yet unsettling violence-as-poetry moments only Woo can pull off.

While Woo has made his name as a masterful action director, fans know that the gunplay is just part of what makes his best HK action films so great. They also feature rich characters and abnormally (for an action film) strong emotion, and what makes Face/Off a Woo film through and through are these two qualities. A number of the film's most memorable scenes aren't elaborate sequences, but quieter, more emotional ones. Particularly poignant are moments involving Sean as Castor--when Sean first sees his reflection as Castor and angrily yells "Fuck you!" over and over again to the doctors; when Sean fights off tears playacting as Castor during a prison fight; and, most notably, when Sean/Castor meets the son Castor never knew he had and loses himself in the moment, hugging the child tightly and calling him "Michael." These scenes, whose success is in large part due to Cage's terrific performance, recall the raw, intense emotion Woo brought to 1990's devastating Bullet in the Head and his masterpiece, 1989's The Killer.

If there's one thing about Face/Off does not feel completely, totally John Woo, it is the incredibly sunny ending, which comes complete with garish white lighting. But that aside, Face/Off is still a refreshing, undiluted dose of Woo--an exhilarating, engrossing, intelligent action thriller that puts all of this summer's other popcorn movies to shame.

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