Sunday, March 23, 2008


The Action Mutant…
will go backyard wrestling on someone’s ass!


review by Joe Burrows

The case has been made that when filmmakers come from their homeland to America, they tend to lose something. Sure, you can make some arguments but for every Peter Jackson, there’s a Paul Verhoeven (and yes, I know Robocop was awesome but what have you done for me lately?). One of the most unfortunate casualties of culture crossover cinema has been the once-demigod known as John Woo. If you’ve seen A Better Tomorrow, The Killer or Hard Boiled, you can’t possibly fathom they came from the same person that did Mission Impossible II, Paycheck and a goddamn Lost In Space TV movie! Many had feared that Woo would be sucked into the Hollywood combine within his arrival to America. Some say it was almost immediate, as Universal lopped off nearly 20 minutes from his first U.S. feature in 1993, the somehow still enjoyable Hard Target. That film was not a major success, nor was the solid, yet forgettable 1996 feature Broken Arrow. His next feature seemed like a last ditch effort to get it right and for a moment, it looked like it worked…

The Plot, as it was:
John Travolta is Sean Archer, an FBI agent who has had master terrorist Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) on the run for years. Troy had mistakenly killed Archer’s son in a botched hit attempt, leaving Archer a wreck hell-bent on bringing Troy in. A full scale chase ends in Troy being put in a coma, which sucks for just about the entire city of Los Angeles because Troy had triggered a bomb to go off in a few days at an unspecified location. In order to gather the information from Castor’s nerdish brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola), Archer reluctantly undergoes a secretive operation that will have Castor’s face physically grafted on to his head and change his body to resemble his. Archer cannot even let his family know, which blows even more when Troy wakes up from his coma and decides to undergo a little surgery of his own. So, Archer is Troy and Troy is Archer. Ain’t that a bitch!

Don’t shoot me…I’m only the reviewer!:
Upon hearing the initial plotline, your first thought is probably wondering who did more acid: the writers or the heads at Paramount that green-lighted it. Well, insanely convoluted plot be dammed! This film is actually immensely entertaining and is the closest Woo ever got to correctly infusing his Hong Kong sensibilities with Hollywood’s tried and true conventions. The action scenes are top notch and as crisp as any of Woo’s previous efforts and (gasp!) look amazing without the aid of lovely CGI graphics! Perhaps the most amazing thing at work here is the performances of the two male leads. It’s easy for someone to mail it in and just do an out-and-out imitation of someone else but Travolta and Cage incorporate each other’s mannerisms and vocal inflections in a subtle manner (I know, Cage = subtle?). Although they both have their “over the top” moments, it is more of a controlled chaos as both run the gamut of emotions and facial expressions without things spilling over into overwrought suck. Adding to the credibility is Joan Allen (Pleasantville, Nixon), who brings humanity to the otherwise thankless role of Archer’s wife. All three of the actors manage grounded reality at times, within the unbelievable story. Some of the moments involving Cage (as Archer) dealing with Troy’s extended gang left me fearing the worst for the film’s coda, with those fears being realized at the film’s saccharine worst. Despite that, Face/Off is grade A action entertainment with instinct and heart behind it.

Character/supporting Actor sighting!:
- Thomas Jane (The Punisher, 61*) plays Burke Hicks.
- Kirk Baltz (Marvin Nash in Reservoir Dogs) is Aldo.
- Danny Masterson (That 70s Show) is Jamie’s (Dominique Swain) date that gets his ass handed to him by Troy.
- Steve Hynter (Seinfeld) briefly plays an FBI agent, interrogating Pollux.

Body Count/Violence: 56. Nowhere near the insane amount established in Hard Boiled or The Killer but very kickass for an American action film. The majority is done in by the usual artful Woo gunplay but there’s also violence by fistfight and knives. Maybe a notch or two below Woo’s bloodiest (not as much lingering on the blood splatter and dead bodies) but still very visceral. There’s also blood during the operation scenes but the graphic nature is somewhat downplayed.

Sexuality/Nudity: We get a glimpse of Swain in white cotton panties and that’s about it.

Language/Dialogue: There’s some strong F-word use at times. Troy is portrayed as a wild eyed sex demon, so there’s a lot of innuendo in that portrayal. “You taste like a peach. I could eat a peach for hours.” Indeed.

How bad was it?:
Here’s one for ya: a critically acclaimed action movie! Most critics universally lauded the film, despite its sometimes overblown nature. It is definitely a rarity for mainstream and action critics to be on the same page.

Did it make the studio’s day?:
Paramount debuted Face/Off on 6/27/97, finishing 1st that weekend with $23.4 million. It took nearly a month and a half for it to fall off the radar, bring in $112.3 million off of an $80 million budget in the U.S.

Film: ***1/2/*****
Entertainment value: ****1/2/*****

Copyright 2007 The Action Mutant.

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