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Non-Review Review: Face/Off

My uncle and I were looking for something good to watch on Tuesday and unfortunately Sky doesn’t offer Sky Premiere HD +1, so we arrived halfway through Sweeney Todd. Feeling somewhat cultured for sitting through five minutes of musical (it is a fantastic film), we decided to indulge our… baser instincts. Digging through a pile of Blu Ray discs we’d found in some godforsaken bargain basement somewhere, we began to despair. Until we found it – the golden poster boy of mindless, insane, frentic and fun action movies of the 1990’s. Yes, we stuck on Face/Off.

Travolta took the news of Nicholas Cage's Ocar win worse than most...

Travolta took the news of Nicholas Cage's Ocar win worse than most...

I’ll be the first to concede that it is brainless. It makes no sense. Its central premise, characters and dialogue are all ridiculous – but all that is forgiveable because the film is so much fun. It revels in its ridiculousness. At the time of its release, the movie did have the benefit of being relatively fresh – it had been quite some time since something so braindead had been served up in such a way. In the years since the film’s initial release, many of director John Woo’s tricks have become old hand, and we can’t really argue that the movie isn’t dated by them, but they do manage to seem more energetic than the next film.

The movie’s plot – if it has one hidden somewhere between the impressively choreographed sequences – sees FBI agent John Travolta swap faces with serial terrorist Nicholas Cage (who goes by the nom de plume of Castor Troy). The film encourages you to roll with it by giving you possibly the strongest performance by Travolta since Pulp Fiction. That may not sound like much, and you may point and call it a gratuitously bad performance, until you realise – he’s flawlessly imitating Nicholas Cage in all his over-the-top glory. In fairness, the script doesn’t give him much to work with except sleazy one liners (which he executes with serious skill), but he incorporates Nicholas Cage’s mannerisms into the character in a subtle way that’s easy to miss – he punctuates his sentences with “ah” and “um” and moves in a decidedly Nicholas Cage fashion. I get the sense a lot of research (and a lot of fun) went into to bringing the over-the-top character to the screen, and it pays off. It helps that he’s ably supported by the ever-fantastic Joan Allen.

Cage on the other hand has a bummer role. He plays well for the ten minutes he’s in character at the start, but when asked to play against character, he’s stumped. It’s not enough to say he was saddled with a boring character – Travolta was saddled with a potentially irritating and over-the-top character. Cage just can’t follow up on the pathos that Travolta instills in the character in the fifteen minutes before they swap places… er… I mean faces. He isn’t bad, in fairness to him – at least not as bad as we know he will be in films like Ghost Rider and Next – but he lacks the vitallity and promise that defined his earlier dramatic roles and even his first foray into action movies, The Rock. It doesn’t help that he’s supported by the less-than-fantastic Gina Gershon.

The direction and choreography is brilliant. The action sequences still work for the most part, but they aren’t as flat-out dazzling as they were on initial release. The finale sequence is still pulsepounding, as is the opening showdown. There are more than a few impressive ones staged in between and these offer the real reason to want to see the film.

Well, and John Travolta.

Still, the movie holds up as one of the finer examples of nineties action movies (I can’t think of a more impressive one all around at the moment), and you could do a lot worse if you’re a Travolta fan or just looking for a diversion.

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Face/Off is directed by John Woo (Hard Boiled, Broken Arrow) and stars Nicholas Cage (Leaving Las Vegas, The Rock), John Travolta (Grease, Pulp Fiction), Joan Allen (Nixon, The Bourne Ultimatum), Gina Gershon (Bound, Showgirls), Robert Wisdom (The Wire), Colm Feore (24), CCH Pounder (The X-Files, Justice League) and John Carroll Lynch (Zodiac). It was released in the United States on the 27th June 1997 and didn’t reach the UK or Ireland until the 7th November 1997.

One Response

  1. Just posted my review of this up on the site. Still a great, entertaining, watch

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