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‘Face/Off’ 4K UHD (Blu-ray review)

Kino Lorber

Face/Off is an important moment in the Hollywood stage of action master John Woo’s career because it represents the only time that Woo was able to work with two leads who were willing to give the kind of emotionally committed performance that Woo had gotten from Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung in films like The Killer and Bullet in the Head.

In the West, we tend to boil Woo down to his slow-motion balletic gunplay, but just as important to his success in Hong Kong was the complete emotional sincerity of the leads, even when things got crazy and that’s why it’s so great that John Travolta and Nicolas Cage are all in her

Face/Off follows FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) who has spent his career chasing international terrorist Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) and became such a thorn in his side that Troy killed Archer’s son in a botched attempt to ice him.

When Troy is finally captured at LAX after arming a biological weapon, Archer is given a radical surgical procedure where the two men switch faces so Archer can infiltrate Troy’s operation in prison.

Predictably Troy wakes up and after killing the only people who know the switch took place, begins living Archer’s life in his stead. Now Archer, whom the world believes to be Troy, must convince his friends and family that the man they’ve accepted is an imposter.

Continuing the theme above, Face/Off has great action but what separates it from the rest of Woo’s Hollywood output is how it contains almost the total package of what made him so thrilling as a filmmaker from the beginning. We’ll get to the two leads in time but I especially like the editing where you get the use of dissolves for style, a hallmark of his work since A Better Tomorrow, as well the use of slow motion in heightened dramatic as well exciting moments. Hard Target, Mission: Impossible 2, and Broken Arrow were all taken away from Woo in editing, and this is the one time that the whole film reflects his sensibilities in pacing and drama.

The central conceit of the film, switching faces as the backbone of perfect disguise, is obviously ridiculous but it’s in a sweet spot where it’s so ludicrous that you know they’re in on the joke, but not so camp that you can’t produce good drama following forth from that premise. It’s also a completely fresh means of examining Woo’s favorite themes: the symbiotic relationship between police and criminals and the fragile boundary between love and hate. Archer and Troy have hated one another for so long that both are able to step into one another’s lives and convincingly fool the other’s closest associates, but also begin to empathize with the people in that world. Castor begins fathering Archer’s wayward daughter and encouraging his beleaguered colleagues while Archer skillfully manipulates Troy’s criminal associates and discovers in Troy’s estranged son a glimmer of humanity that he had never seen in his nemesis. This kind of mutual identification under duress, and not slow motion bullets, is the basis for John Woo’s expertise as a director.

Travolta and Cage are indispensable here: I would be hard-pressed to think of two other Hollywood actors who could have delivered on this insane premise, much less knocked it out of the park. Travolta begins as haunted good guy Archer and then for most of the film builds on his villainous turn in Broken Arrow playing Troy-as-Archer with a contained malevolence that puts me in the mind of a guard dog finally being let off the leash and cannot believe how many soft targets he has access to now.

That said, this is Nicolas Cage’s movie.

Cage is completely unhinged in the opening sections and then expertly modulates his energy and convincingly finds himself as another person in the second act before returning to full John Woo, double-Beretta, dove-flying energy in the finale. At the height of his commercial importance, it isn’t surprising that Cage took a role in a big action film like this, but what feels like it could only come from his is the power and concentration of craft that he lends to a surreal and bizarre premise to make it feel psychologically compelling. In a career of going over the top, it is so much to watch a film where he starts at a ten, and then has to find his way back to it over the course of the action.

Extras are plentiful including multiple commentary tracks, deleted and alternate scenes, making of documentary, John Woo featurette and trailer.

Face/Off is a classic of the action cinema and absolutely worth revisiting.


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