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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 16.76%
Average: 12.14%
Pretty Bad: 6.94%
Total Crap: 5.78%

9 reviews, 119 user ratings

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by Jack Sommersby

"Very Fun Stuff Until It Runs Out of Steam"
3 stars

While the film could have easily withstood a 20-minute trim, there are many memorable moments and the superlative performances of Travolta and Cage to keep things interesting.

In John Woo's Face/Off, John Travolta stars as Sean Archer, a top FBI agent who's at a very low point in his life. Six years prior his young son was accidentally shot to death by his arch-nemesis, the criminal mastermind Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), in an assassination attempt; Sean was the target, but the boy got in the way and took the bullet instead. Sean wears a scar on his chest (the bullet went through his son's back and caused a flesh wound) along with a heavy load of guilt, depression, and a seething hatred for Troy. He's become a stubbornly opinionated man at work and an emotionally reclusive husband and father at home; his wife, Eve (Joan Allen), has grown used to it and sadly realizes that their marriage ties are slowly dissolving. Sean is a wreck of a man who's managed to become a victim of Troy's in two ways: the bullet inflicted the physical damage while the aftermath is draining away his humanism. (Travolta convinces you that Sean's need for revenge is physiologically necessary -- he's locked into it with a frightening dedication that seems to literally seep from his pores.) Sean gets a lucky break when an informant reveals that Troy is at the airport waiting to take off in a private jet. The FBI swarms the site, and Troy attempts to take off but is cut off and the jet crashes into a hanger: Troy (with his two gold-plated pistols) and his brother Pollex (Alessandro Nivola) abandon the jet and attempt to shoot it out with Sean and his team. This is the first of Woo's operatic set pieces, and it's a beauty. People spring for cover in the narrow cul-de-sacs while others dive, jump and spring forth at one another with their guns blazing. Each shot is flawlessly framed yet not overly calculated -- the sequence is chock-full of voluptuous colorful energy that jumpstarts your senses and puts you right there amidst the action to dizzying effect. None of it's believable for a second, but you're not likely to care because all of it's executed with such ungodly aplomb and a proper respect for coherent spatial logistics where, as opposed to a Michael Bay or Tony Scott film, we can tell where one shooter is in relation to another one. Sean escapes uninjured while Pollux is lightly wounded and Troy becomes temporarily brain-dead after being slammed against a metal grate at terminal force by a plane engine. With a two-hour-and-twenty-minute running time, this is, quite clearly, far from the end, and Face/Off takes a most interesting turn in the second act.

In a beautiful plot twist, Sean learns that Troy and his gang have already rigged a bomb and have placed it somewhere in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Pollux, the electronics genius, is the only one who knows the location of the device and is sent to a prison when the Feds fail to make him talk. Sean, alas, is in a bit of a bind: He's not authorized to make a deal with Pollux, yet if the bomb isn't found then thousands of people are guaranteed to die. Then, with all options exhausted, a whoppingly bizarre idea is laid upon Sean. It seems a federal laboratory is working on a top-secret experiment that could change the evolution of genetic science: a procedure has been perfected where a face is literally removed from one person and surgically implanted onto a live person, with the other face removed and stored in a liquid preserver and the subject given the ability to vocally mimic. It's proposed that Sean exchange faces with Troy, who's being kept alive by machines, and enter the prison and learn the bomb's location from Pollux. Sean finds it howlingly preposterous, but with the bomb set to go off in six days he agrees to it with plenty of fear and reserve. To make matters worse, his fellow agents and family are to know nothing about it and the prison officials will presume him to be Troy. He undergoes the surgery, and the result is surprisingly flawless. Sean is physically an entirely different man (played by Cage), and when he first looks at his reflection the resulting emotional turmoil is painful. The concept was disturbing at the onset, but Sean is unprepared for the horror of externally becoming the man he hates most in the world -- a force of true evil. Cage is a multi-faceted performer with incredible reserves of imagination, and his reactions here are psychologically devastating -- the screams he emits might as well be coming from a lion whose cubs have been slaughtered right before its eyes. Sean's partner and only confident keeps telling him over and over again that he is Sean Archer...Sean Archer...Sean Archer; the scene is a tour-de-force by emphasizing the tragedy as well as the fantastic wonder of this daring experiment. Sean is then taken to prison and dumped into the main population where he meets up with Pollux and starts working on him. While this is happening, Troy unexpectedly wakes up and is surprised at not having a face. His gang makes the doctors implant Sean's face onto his, and then they blow up the lab with all the necessary equipment to switch faces.

Troy loves his new identity and gets a jubilant kick out of impersonating a man who everyone on the law-abiding side respects. While Sean was less apt to accept verbal accolades (with him, the negative always outweighed the positive) Troy turns him into a glorified, emoting joker; he lavishes on all the good things that Sean ignored -- when people congratulate him he's quick to show smugness, and when a pretty agent smiles at him he happily pinches her butt. He also becomes a national hero after defusing the bomb, much to the appreciation of the citizens and the President himself. Troy is currently the man of the world and loving every second of it. So is Travolta. He cuts loose and gives his scenes a giddy sense of naughtiness that are purely incorrigible; he clues you into Troy's insecure masculinity that craves such attention. Travolta's having a ball, and the joyful kick he gets from it is perfectly controlled and stops short of hammy showboating. (It's a much more precise villainous turn than his work in Woo's excellent Broken Arrow, where timidity seemed to engulf him -- he never seemed entirely comfortable playing a villain.) Troy even brings his newfound glee into Sean's home life. He senses Eve's loneliness and gives her all the loving attention she's been craving; she surrenders to it and can't quite believe the one-eighty her husband's undergone. And he also works wonders with the daughter. She's been neglected, too, and Troy recognizes her transparent, obvious signs of rebellion, and instead of scoffing he uses it to his advantage by playing along and gladly lighting up a cigarette with her. In just a few hours he's managed to pierce the family's tension by simply catering to their obvious needs that Sean was too preoccupied to pick up on. It's perfectly ironic that the evil Troy should make an easier transition then the good Sean, who's being beaten in prison; it reinforces the theory that criminals have the makings to be great cops, with Troy proving that tact can create the fine illusion of goodness. The film's third act, though, has a more familiar design and plays out on a much more conventional level where coincidence and split-second encounters keep the plot ticking and the originality thinning. Troy goes to see Sean in prison, and the switched identity allows him the kick of seeing his enemy squirm in a sea of misery; he taunts him with threats against his family, causing Sean to plot an escape from this state-of-the-art facility. (The prisoners are fitted with magnetized footwear that lock onto the metal floors at the touch of a button.) Of course, this being Movieland, the odds are quite good that Sean will escape and face Troy in a last dance of death where only one will survive. But even if Sean wins, how will he get back his face and identity?

Face/Off is so entertainingly written and well-executed that it's amazing the outrageousness of its central premise is the least aspect to criticize. Screenwriters Mike Werb and Michael Colleary have created an inventive structure for a fine action film, but they've gone further by embracing the dynamic dramatics and moral complexities incorporated within it; they don't shuck them off like most writers would and have the intelligence to deal with the emotions that arise and maturely integrate it into the plot. None of the emotional scenes come off as maudlin, and you're likely to actually give a damn about the characters (a rarity in the action genre, to be sure). As aforewritten, both Travolta and Cage do exemplary work. For the film to work in dramatic terms, both actors must walk a fine line between impersonating and showboating: acting strictly as a mimic would cut short the fun to be had from enjoying the identity switch, and overacting would get across the fun but lessen the believability of the internal transition. It's to both actors' credit that their original identities are so sharply etched that we have the joy of seeing them flawlessly duplicate each other; they bring a fresh supply of the other one's quirks and tics into their switched identities while managing to lightly lampoon the other's acting techniques and mannerisms. It's a miraculous display of controlled, creatively nuanced acting that deserves to be placed in a time capsule.

John Woo is nothing short of a godsend at respecting and combining the tricky plot components into a cohesive whole. The film feels solid with a minimum of flab and is never boring in its two-hour-plus running time. However, Face/Off does have some problems, but they have nothing really to do with Woo's technique; rather, it's his and the screenwriters' judgment. There's a scene in the first act when Sean arrives at headquarters the morning after Troy has been captured, and the agents raise bottles of champagne to cheer him; but he's disgusted over their jovial mood and reminds them that six of their fellow agents were killed in the fight -- he tells them to drink a toast to them instead. It's a bit off-putting to reprimand the agents (as well as the audience) for enjoying the feat of Troy's capture when that sequence had been executed with a comic-strip savvy. Woo wants us to enjoy the action bravado he's affording us, so it's more than a bit hypocritical to lecture about the consequences of violence when said violence hasn't been presented realistically -- the dead agents warranted not so much as a walk-on before the gunfire commenced, so our feeling of loss of them is nil. The writers are trying to add moral depth for Sean (and that's just fine), but they've tripped themselves up in this scant bit of moralizing by asking us to cower our heads as a penalty for enjoying the action. How are we supposed to have a realistic take on the scene when six trained agents are mowed down with a Grim Reaper's efficiency with just a couple of Troy's pistols? There's nothing wrong with a morality check now and again, but it's still ass-backwards to lecture about violence with cartoonish blood on your apron. (Sam Peckinpah was accused of something similar in his The Wild Bunch.) This may seem like a minor thing, yet it leaves a disquieting impression for the duration of the film in that you don't know whether to be thrilled or repulsed at the ensuing violence. And there are some plot contrivances that are odious. Sean's wife works as a doctor at a hospital and, upon learning that, relevancy bells start ringing, and you know this is going to have a bearing in the story. So when Troy destroys the secret lab or when Eve needs a blood sample to determine who her real husband is, it slams the point home even deeper. (Why do women's occupations in action films almost always have a strained function? If Eve were an accountant then Sean would've been in a world of hurt.) When Sean breaks out of jail, commandeers a fellow inmate, and the two start shooting it out with the guards you might start thinking back to the film's earlier bout of moralizing and wonder how the filmmakers are going to justify an FBI agent shooting at them. Simple: the guards are portrayed as the most brutally animalistic since those on display in Midnight Express, and the only ones Sean shoots at are those shooting at him -- it's cushy grounds for Sean (and the writers). The screenplay is occasionally marvelous but can also be maddeningly infuriating. More than a few times when the film pulls off an elaborate trick it's backed up by an insulting dummy switch, and our respect for the film somewhat dissipates. Broken Arrow moved at a fever clip and was oblivious to logic and reason; here, Woo's slowed down the tempo and managed to change the rhythmic narrative where these aren't always pointing in the film's favor -- there's more time allowing for recall.

Not the classic a lot of people have enthusiastically labeled it as, it's still pretty good entertinamrnt.

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originally posted: 10/06/07 00:12:42
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User Comments

12/29/17 morris campbell silly but entertaining action film 4 stars
10/08/13 Jeff Wilder One of the best recent Hollywood action films. Woo's direction is superb. 5 stars
11/18/08 killer are you kidding best movie ever 5 stars
8/27/08 Shaun Wallner This one was kinda boring. 2 stars
8/17/08 John Millheim Pretty good, I like when Travolta has to act bad,creepy 4 stars
3/30/08 Pamela White compelling drama 4 stars
10/09/07 dude I thought it was boring 1 stars
10/07/07 mark madsen I thought mowie was pretty good. 4 stars
10/06/07 Mars. . . dAmn Good movie! ! ! 4 stars
6/11/07 al smith it rocks.woo's best american film and one of the best action films ever 5 stars
5/25/07 Sugarfoot Entertaining but a tad too long, the closest America has come to realizing Woo's craft. 4 stars
3/09/07 johnnyfog Overrated! But servicable. Gina Gershon's there for no reason 4 stars
12/26/06 johnnyfog Look, guns that shoot sparks and nothing else! Hammy Travolta is cool for once 4 stars
12/06/06 David Pollastrini great fx 4 stars
10/31/06 ProSneakyD A few flaws but other than that, a bloody well directed action movie, need more like this. 5 stars
9/01/06 Michele love it 5 stars
7/24/06 JenDenmark pretty baaaaahhhd! 2 stars
6/27/06 leslie weekes good old shoot em up sneering action film 3 stars
6/03/06 tatum A great big entertaining loud sloppy mess; lots of fun 4 stars
11/25/05 CONSTANTINE AWESOME review 'cooler' & 'Frank Rountree' GOOD ON YA'!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
11/21/05 Frank Rountree Good effects, and great story, good cast 4 stars
10/22/05 cooler one of the greatest action movies of all time 5 stars
10/11/05 CONSTANTINE BEST AMERICAN MADE John Woo FILM EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
9/04/05 Tom Burns An action-packed movie. Travolta and Cage are great in their roles they play. 5 stars
8/16/05 ES John Woo, john Travolta & Niccholas Cage!= no one saw this movie would suck before hand? 1 stars
7/23/05 ALDO John Travolta/Nicholas Cage are GREAT IN THIS 5 stars
6/30/05 Negative An classic action film. Well done. Great story, acting, music. 5 stars
6/06/05 Daveman More silly and excessive than Hard Boiled (which is quite an achievement) but the action... 4 stars
6/04/05 Hack-SAW AN ACTION CLASSIC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
6/03/05 Indrid Cold Fantastic concept and execution. As good as action gets. 5 stars
4/19/05 The Sorrow Instant, instant... INSTANT Friggen' CLASSIC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
3/11/05 The Sorrow Classic... 5 stars
1/10/05 bana puts the acting into action movie 5 stars
8/08/04 Alan The least they could do is get actors with similar bone structures. 2 stars
5/31/04 John Poo's "Arse/Off" "YOU ASSHOLE!" "I'm not an asshole, I AM A MAN!" Back of the Y: masterpiece televison. 5 stars
4/18/04 Boris Smith High Energy Action and fun save this movie's stupid plot 3 stars
3/28/04 john John Woo's least offensive American film 4 stars
1/20/04 nameless cool action 5 stars
12/06/03 Gustavo Alejandro Reinoso The best action film in history 5 stars
10/13/03 Stefan Halka While over-long, this film is fun to watch from the superbly directed actiion sequences. 4 stars
5/16/03 mr. Pink Woo's best American movie with travolta & Cage at the top of their game. This rocks!! 5 stars
3/04/03 Jack Sommersby Starts off well, and goes downhill from there. Barely recommendable. 3 stars
8/19/02 Mr. Hat (I'm Back!) "Hard-Boiled" and "Face/Off" are John Woo's best movies. 5 stars
7/25/02 murat idea? great,film?AVERAGE. 3 stars
7/24/02 STEVE THIS MOVIE ROCKS!!! 5 stars
7/20/02 ! One of the best action movies of the last years 5 stars
6/17/02 R.W. Welch Preposterous but quite watchable pic, novel if nothing else. 4 stars
6/08/02 Phil M. Aficionado Implausibility on steroids, but it is a gas and very different. Plot is over the top. 4 stars
4/24/02 Monster W. Kung Not bad, but the action becomes overkill in the end. 3 stars
3/08/02 Mo Anand Awesome special effects...with two great actors 5 stars
1/17/02 David A. Has some exciting scenes, but the concept of transplating faces is too preposterous! 4 stars
1/03/02 Scream-Mania Cool actions, good plot, good acting, and a good movie 5 stars
11/30/01 Rutt13 Exciting, great action, great acting! 5 stars
10/15/01 Andrew Carden A Few Good Action Scenes, but Travolta Seems Uncomfortable. 3 stars
9/05/01 Butterbean Fast paced, non-stop action with a decent plot! 5 stars
7/28/01 Steve Ass-kicking action sequences, great acting, great story, but a bit long. 4 stars
7/25/01 TLsmooth This fucking movie would not end. Nick Cage is dog shit. 1 stars
7/08/01 Gracy Lionheart I really liked this movie. I like psychotic villians. :-) 4 stars
6/26/01 Lars Pettersson Woo's best american movie without any doubt. Great acting, superb actionsequences ! 4 stars
6/15/01 Law Firm of Dewey, Cheatam & Howe Sadistic garbage; not worth two dead flies 1 stars
5/31/01 Mason Billotte This movie is fucking awesome! 5 stars
5/11/01 Finity fantasmic 5 stars
4/23/01 Luke In response to Jake = ????? BTW i loved this movie 5 stars
4/12/01 dale hardiman I bought this film a week ago and have watched it 20 times since.It's awesome. 5 stars
3/19/01 Mart Dawg REally good movie, original story, nicholas cage is the shit 5 stars
2/15/01 lisa Awesome, but sorta confusing. 5 stars
2/14/01 Jake John Woo does it again! 1 stars
2/13/01 Richard Wright "Papa's got a brand new bag." Exhilarating action film by a master of the genre. 4 stars
1/30/01 rubber PLEASE GIVE THIS A MISS!!! Total CRAP & BOLLOCKS!!! 1 stars
1/13/01 Jake Awesome action movie 5 stars
1/01/01 Msitrab One of the 5 best action movies ever 5 stars
12/28/00 Turtle Another Nic Cage action blockbuster! 5 stars
12/04/00 Cristopher Revilla one of the best action films since the fugitive, Bill Head, you should stop giving head! 5 stars
11/22/00 The Bill Head What a brainless monstrosity!! Filling with Woo's moronic action scenes..It was hilarious!! 1 stars
11/14/00 The EVIL Penguin a great soryline; more like realistic 4 stars
10/26/00 JC23 Delivers action AND a Story 5 stars
6/22/00 Visc Don't miss this one 5 stars
6/01/00 arnold bad ass 5 stars
5/30/00 Bruce Joseph is right, this is one of the best american action films ever. 5 stars
5/21/00 Cinesuerte with Joan Allen & Margaret Cho 2 of the most unattractive women of cinema 4 stars
4/29/00 Joseph P. Ulibas one of the best american action films I have seen. 5 stars
2/06/00 Kyle Broflovski OUCH!!! Ouch in a good way! 5 stars
1/20/00 ripley WOW!!! 5 stars
1/17/00 Dirk Diggler top notch 5 stars
1/12/00 dr.d a blazing thriller 5 stars
1/09/00 John Markham A steaming turd, with nuts in it. 1 stars
11/09/99 Bozo sadistic garbage from hollywood morons; what is joan allen doing here? 1 stars
11/02/99 C.A.T.M. Best action movie ever, with plot, characters, direction, and acting!! 5 stars
7/30/99 Matthew Bartley Amazing action but too long 4 stars
6/15/99 Dylan Absolutely fantastic. Pure entertainment- the choreography is fucking ace. 5 stars
6/04/99 Meagan This is the best action movie I've seen in a long time, and the best I've seen since. 5 stars
5/24/99 Allie A must see! 5 stars
5/23/99 GothamDK Awsome everything! Don't know how John Woo is going to top this. Hope he tries, though. 5 stars
5/19/99 Robert Williams Piece of shit, Woo hong kong movies cane this hollywood tripe. Tries to hard and it shows. 1 stars
5/15/99 lucas jackson this is one fucking good movie,it kicks ass!! 5 stars
4/30/99 Rob Mckechnie They should off called this The Best Action Scenes Ever : Volume 1 5 stars
4/26/99 Michael Grimm if Woo made this in Hong Kong it would have been better than Hard Boiled or the Killer 4 stars
4/20/99 jimmy jam WOWIE! 5 stars
2/19/99 nun uf yur businness some really gross parts but other wise its really really awesome! 5 stars
2/18/99 Piz vintage Wu in pour it on style...entertaining, fast, and a little repetitive 4 stars
1/15/99 DRMJSP Totally awesome movie."I guess you better pull the trigger. CAUSE I DON'T GIVE A FUCK!" 5 stars
1/09/99 Jo Mama i love gina gershon. oh, and the filming was great too. 5 stars
1/03/99 Dasha Face/Off ROCKS! One of the best action movies ever. 5 stars
11/13/98 Jules Why do they have 10 year olds writing movies in Hollywood? 3 stars
10/26/98 Brian Easily Woo's best American effort, but doesn't compare to "classics."1st time I saw, I love 5 stars
10/14/98 Chi-Fan Hu All the action I can take 5 stars
9/27/98 katherine pretty dumb 2 stars
9/24/98 Milhouse Faqw After about 2 minutes, I forgot about the plot. The action is the best ever. 5 stars
9/20/98 Jon Amazing Action Flick. Nic Cage and John Travolta are the awesome! 5 stars
9/07/98 ARMA-FUCK'N-GEDDON Oh come on... FACE/OFF is the best action flic next to, well, you guessed it 5 stars
9/02/98 J-Guy I was thinking "wouldnt their voices stay the same even if they switched faces?" 2 stars
8/30/98 Matt so very Woo-ish.. and yet not 4 stars
8/24/98 The Capital City Goofball Hardboiled ruled - very realistic. Face/Off sucked - very contrived. 2 stars
8/20/98 The Man With The Helmet Hey Woo, slo-mo this. 3 stars
8/18/98 zubilicious john travolta's acting made me ill. nic cage was awesome in the first 30 mins of it. 4 stars
8/17/98 Johny Woo rocks a well acted action movie with an element of sci-fi to be accepted 5 stars
8/17/98 {{{OZ}}} Suspension of disbelief needed. Good moments, badly cast doubles & boom mics aplenty. 3 stars
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  27-Jun-1997 (R)



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