ONE OF THE oldest-ever movie clichés rules John Woo's Face/Off, but you have to dig through lots of explosions and sweating to find it. This particular cliché has nothing to do with a cop's inner demons or the Western world's need to find a villain now that the commies are no more. In fact, this cliché has nothing to do with violence or manly stuff at all.
Instead, it's the romantic sentimentality that has always been at the core of guy-vs.-guy stories; in order to put some emotional weight behind the muscle, motivation is required, and often that motivation relies on excessive and even cheap feeling (as in easily bought). Some of these tenderly macho films have tried to extend the link between cop and killer into homoerotic territory, with the guns-drawn pose of a Mexican standoff making for a handy symbol of sexual tension--if you so desire. But all a movie needs to conjure cheap sentiment is to make us worry about a child we just met, or create a cute lovers' gesture, or repeat a pout more often than necessary.
The seminal event of Face/Off is the attempted murder of FBI agentSean Archer (John Travolta), which in turn causes the murder of his 6-year-old son. Archer's would-be assassin is international terrorist Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), whose attacks on global symbols and institutions would be enough to send Archer in pursuit--but now the agent has personal vengeance as extra fuel. Just how "extra" this fuel really is can be seen six years on in the story, at which point the movie finds a bigger (and more original) gimmick in the face-swapping between the two tough guys. Specifically, some modern surgical secrets allow Archer to borrow the face of the comatose Troy, so as to enter the villain's world and destroy it.
What a great movie idea: Walk a mile in my face. Naturally, Troy leaps out of his coma to borrow Archer's face, so for much of the film we have John Travolta playing evil Castor Troy trying to impersonate heroic Sean Archer, and Nicolas Cage... you get the idea. Actors want to stretch, and this kind of plot twist grants both stars a nifty two-in-one résumé item, not to mention the inspiration for some good work. Travolta gets to act noble, and then to roll his eyes trying to continue to act noble, while Cage gets to be horrible and then secretly despairing while outwardly animalistic. Cage's is both the better part and the more interesting acting job; I realized that the eyebrows were the keys to the soul here, and Cage's were in more constant fluctuation.
If Face/Off was only a matter of its stars' eyebrows, the gimmick would work. But as Woo is a slave to his genre, he spreads his over-the-top action scenes and off-the-shelf character bits among various lesser talents. And unfortunately, except for Joan Allen's turn as Archer's confused wife (and possibly CCH Pounder's as an FBI insider who proposes the face-swap), none of the good guys is up to Travolta's game, while the supporting villains look like rejects from the World Wrestling Federation. Just how slavishly Woo fiddles with action-movie conventions is evidenced by his perverse use of "Over the Rainbow" to accompany an FBI hailstorm of bullets (recalling "Singin' in the Rain" in A Clockwork Orange). If one of the hallmarks of pulp is its ability to rip off more original work, then Woo remains a prince of the form. He knows his sources and how to mash 'em.
The only problem is his blunt expressions of intimacy and love. (At some points, I felt I was watching a documentary on gorilla behavior.) While Face/Off's tics aren't as cheap as the "Mickey/Minnie" nicknames Woo once gave two of his Hong Kong tough guys, they hint at the gooey center to his hard-core action--which in this case is too absurd even by his standards.
I kept thinking fondly of another face-shifting classic, Sam Raimi's Darkman, in which Liam Neeson kept brooding over a lost love and borrowing his enemies' faces so as to avenge that loss. Darkman's tragedy was that he'd never have a face of his own again, whereas Archer merely returns to a greeting-card vision of domesticity. Since we're talking poker faces, let's just say Woo doesn't really know how to bluff.