DIRECTED BY JOHN WOO
STARRING: NICOLAS CAGE, JOHN TRAVOLTA, JOAN ALLEN, ALESSANDRO NIVOLA, GINA GERSHON, DOMINIQUE SWAIN, COLM FEORE, HARVE PRESNELL and NICK CASSAVETES
Writers Mike Werb and Michael Colleary would have penned this to be the most outrageous undercover operation ever constructed. I imagine them in the stone-faced craziness with which Doctors Walsh and Miller suggest it to the wide-eyed Sean Archer (John Travolta), who’d vaguely symbolize every producer in town – parties who could potentially have thwarted the very spawning of the action-entertainer in this ‘Face/Off’. We read the question on their lips for it is ours too: How would this work? This is a story that could fall flat on so many levels that you’d require a special surgical procedure to get it back up and running. But we are not to undermine the Doctors of Hollywood nor the prowess of ‘National Security’ in general. Neither are we to question the futility of a so-called ‘special operation’ where there is inevitable loss of personnel, particularly of the only ones who would seem to be aware (in the remotest sense of the word) that there’s been a switch.
‘Face/Off’ is a welcome deviation from usual Undercover ops. The two of them are taken off the razor’s edge and are rewarded with entropy. There’s a remarkable effort in transforming an inward-bound psychological thriller to an extravagant, almost completely superficial action flick where every moment of tension takes a gunshot to relieve itself. Sean Archer remarks at the very beginning on the ridiculousness of the whole thing. “You’re keeping him alive?” he remarks, in an effort to arrest plot development, only to be hushed up by the whole unit of cast and crew, including himself. There’s a swap of faces as well as a body-morph, although the latter is not mentioned but simply has to be. For Archer in form of Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) means Eve (Joan Allen) asking him where he dropped all those pounds, while Sasha Hassler (Gina Gershon) would confront Troy on how he gained them. Character inconsistencies are better explainable – people change even if their faces don’t, but it’s not true vice-versa. We get to question neither for we know we’re watching John Woo.
Still, the film proves too far-fetched and illogical even in course of the established premise. There are two characters who share a level of personal contact with Troy and Archer beyond anyone else that can be excused. One is Pollux Troy (Alessandro Nivola), Castor Troy’s brother – “you’re not the only one that’s smart in the family” is what Castor remarks in Archer’s guise, implying upon a greater level of intelligence on the brother’s part. What part of this intelligence is that which stops him from sounding a red-alert when Archer intrudes upon the Troy household? Is that not just a convenient plot device to bring about the end of the only character who could destroy Archer’s (in Troy’s body) progress into the rest of the plot? And what about the other character in Mrs. Archer? Would a wife not know her husband from another man, having lived with him for about two decades? The sacrifice of the less-crucial Pollux could be seen as one for ‘the Greater Good’, but the second case is simply intolerable. Even more infuriating is the emotional hijack that writers and director try to take us on as a sort of transient between two bombs. While on the one hand there’s attempted visual poetry, on the other we have an undiluted, brute orchestra of shipwrecks and harbor-blowups. This, somehow, doesn’t tally.
Nevertheless, what would lift ‘Face/Off’ higher than the usual mindless entertainer is that it’s an actor’s dream – two people get to play two characters to give us four different versions in a competitive mutualism. Cage and Travolta might not be the best of choices in terms of acting talent, but they do just fine, bringing more to the table in form of their fame. And ‘Face/Off’, along with its director, would be remembered as the film about two actors trying to emulate each other in a concept that wants them to, in an inherent metaphor. Except that it could have gone a little easier with its cheap thrills and filled the voids with poise that has otherwise just been ‘suggested’.