July 1724, 1997
By now, no one need tell you of director John Woo's fast-paced ballets of blood, his penchant for musical machismo or his heavy-handed religious symbolism. It's all here. What he's dealing with in Face/Off is the nature of identity, the ultimate role/soul reversal. Woo's adventure shot alternately in wide, deep, Ford-like vistas with dusty textures and refracted light, or in tight, grainy, sweaty closeup is about the necessity of losing one's self. That it's a bitchy, catty, blood-soaked battle between two scenery-chewing actors to find the "one" between them is what makes Woo, umm, woo. In this corner we have good: flabby, craggy, burned-out FBI star Sean Archer (John Travolta) who, by avenging his son's murder at the hand of oozingly odd criminal Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage in Vampire's Kiss mode), will find peace within and hopefully renew his familial bond, as represented by a seemingly unloved/unfucked wife (thin-lipped Joan Allen) and daughter (Dominique Swain). The other corner holds bad: Troy, a singing loony who loves his now-jailed genius brother, his kooky druggie friends (headed by Nick Cassavetes), his nagging chick (overbiting Gina Gershon) and bro's plot to blow up L.A. that Travolta must thwart. But how? Sure, capture Troy and become him through laser surgery ya, know: face off and movement classes. Put your own face in water. It'll hold. Good becomes innate evil. One problem. This leaves a bloody cig-smoking slab of Troy with only Archer's face to wear when he wakes up from his coma. And his wedding ring. And his goodness which he struts like a peacock spreading its feathers. Having Troy-in-Archer brings the blah FBI man to life; he's a sensual, preening dancing powerhouse of barely controlled rage. That Archer-in-Troy makes the bad guy perfectly sweet and paternal is close-but-no-Travolta. Yet, both actors make their alter-ego characters three-dimensional through the smallest of details slight tilt of head, an approach to another, the brush of one's cheek. It's these details that make Woo's sumptuous cartoon violence whole. And yeah, the action and the buckets of blood are cool, too.