Face/Off (1997)

Director John Woo can be depended upon to create visually beautiful films that take cinematic style to a far higher level than that attempted by any American director. As the former high priest of Hong Kong action films, Woo, now on his third Hollywood feature, has done it again with a gorgeous and gory movie that is both balletic and bullet-riddled. *Face/Off* features all that is familiar in Woo's ouevre both thematically and stylistically, save one crucial element: emotion. What should be another moving meditation on violence, retribution and redemption is scuttled by an apparent lack of conviction and a story too cumbersome and preposterous to be engaging.

Sean Archer (John Travolta) is an FBI agent in perpetual mourning and pursuit after the death of his young son at the hands of assassin and terrorist-for-hire Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). When Archer kills Castor, his troubles are only just beginning, however. Turns out Castor recently planted a biological bomb, set to detonate in several days. Castor's sociopathic brother Pollux (no sign of sister Helen of Troy here, by the way) won't divulge the location of the bomb, so, to trick Pollux (Alessandro Nivola) into spilling the beans, Archer goes undercover in prison, after assuming a most clever disguise. With amazingly simple (and disgusting) technology, Castor's face is cut off and transplanted onto Archer in a supposedly reversible procedure.

But it turns out that Castor isn't dead after all, and he miraculously awakens from his vegetative state only to discover he has no face. Luckily, Archer's disembodied countenance is conveniently floating in a nearby pan and presto-chango, the Archer-enemy assumes his nemesis' identity and kills all the people who know about it. Castor enjoys Archer's life, complete with heroic escapades and accolades, a patient and surprised wife (Joan Allen), and rebellious teenage daughter (who thinks her Dad is suddenly cool), a little too much. Castor-as-Archer is at his most menacing, and the movie is most suspenseful as the familial fox-in-a-henhouse subplot plays out. Meanwhile, Archer-as-Castor is forced to escape from a brutal prison, hang out with lowlifes, and kill lots of people who would ordinarily be on his side of the law.

With its heavy symbolic and mythological underpinnings and Woo's signature Christian imagery (including his standard shootout in a church), *Face/Off* has the potential to be a better-than-average psychological thriller. The hero and villain, in altering their external identities, find themselves altered within, good turning to bad, bad turning to good. In a nice twist, each man also embraces paternity in an unexpected, figurative child swap. While struggling with the complications of their dual identities, they must also face off against each other (as nicely realized in a shootout staged in a mirror-filled room). The psychological possibilities are not quite satisfactorily explored in *Face/Off*, however, and at no point does this visually compelling film manage to suspend disbelief long enough to be involving or moving, despite the poignancy of the familial relationships.

The part of *Face/Off* that's works best, surprisingly, is the whole silly face transplant business. Through a neat bit of sleight of hand, Travolta and Cage sustain the illusion that they are characters pretending to be other characters. So Cage first plays Castor, then Castor as Archer might impersonate him, while Travolta, in the juicier role, is Archer, and Archer as a psycho killer might impersonate him. Travolta and Cage do some fine acting and have a lot of fun hamming it up with the two-in-one roles, and both are quite effectively convincing even though the identity shifts are purely a psychological illusion, requiring no physical changes whatsoever.

If only the rest of the film were so convincing. *Face/Off* features huge, spectacular stunts, and land, sea and air chases, but there's never any real sense of conviction about them. It's like seeing the wizard behind the curtain -- with no real illusion of reality to thrill and chill, all that's left is a distracting awareness that some pretty neat stunts are rolling out on film. And while Woo's action sequences are precisely and beautifully choreographed (one gun battle was set to the song *Over The Rainbow*), the moves are predictably familiar by now -- the shootouts always start with two-fisted, guns-a-blazing, bodies-a-flying mayhem and end in an inches-away who's-got-nothing-to-lose standoff. After the sixth or seventh movie, it's like seeing *Swan Lake* over and over again -- *Swan Lake* is great, but maybe *The Nutcracker* would be nice for a change.

From a purely stylistic standpoint, *Face/Off* is a gorgeous, lyrical film, far superior to standard action fare. Thematically, *Face/Off* is overly ambitious, exploring paternal, maternal and fraternal love, revenge and redemption, good and evil, internal and external identity, good science and bad science, and more. The result is an unwieldy narrative structure whose collapse, ironically, is hastened by the distracting beauty of the storytelling technique.


My Best Friend's Wedding (1997)

Julianne (Julia Roberts) really has her heart in the wrong place. Her head is all wrong, too. She's altogether Ms. Wrong, and altogether a mess the minute she learns that her best friend is getting married. This isn't just a run of the mill case of always the bridesmaid never the bride jealousy, however. This is psychotic, desperately lonely jealousy, the kind of cupidity that instantly turns an ordinary restaurant critic into a raving lunatic.

That's because Julianne's best friend is Michael (Dermot Mulroney), and his impending nuptials cause her to suddenly realize that she has been in love with him for nine years. But he's about to marry Ms. Right, a sweet, adorable heiress named Kimmy (Cameron Diaz). So Julianne, rather than confess her love to Michael, hatches scheme after devious scheme to drive the lovebirds apart on the eve of their wedding -- she'll stop at nothing, even if it means ruining both their lives. Some friend.

There's a fine tradition of devious, lovesick women in romantic comedies. They always get their man through trickery, chicanery, wile and guile, but they have the very best intentions, and they really are meant to be with the generally unsuspecting objects of their affection. And aside from her ruthlessness in romance, the romantic comedienne is always a likable, charming, smart but screwy gal, a self-sufficent, self-possessed woman rendered nutso by love. Not Julianne. She's no Katharine Hepburn. Julianne breaks every rule by being venal, petty, cruel and utterly selfish, a woman singularly determined to destroy a good relationship at any cost.

That's the catch to *My Best Friend's Wedding*, and a big catch it is. Not only is the protagonist generally unlikable, but she's obviously *not* meant to be with the man she so mercilessly pursues. He's happy with Kimmy until Julianne starts to work on him. *My Best Friend's Wedding* is a deliciously subversive, sneaky movie that violates the rules of romantic comedy and violates audience expectations as well. If this was a classic romantic comedy, you'd like Julianne, you'd want her to get together with Michael, to believe that true love always win, but there's nothing true or very loving about Julianne. If she wins, Michael loses, and if she loses, the whole romantic comedy genre gets turned on its head. *My Best Friend's Wedding* makes you want what you don't want, and ambivalent about what you get.

Catch number two: Julianne's real soul mate, her true best friend is obviously George (Rupert Everett), her patient, saintly editor. It is really George that Julianne is meant to be with, except that George is gay. George and Julianne and have an ease, familiarity and compatibility that makes them sizzle, while Julianne and Michael don't -- they fizzle.

Ronald Bass' script has moments of frothy wit mixed with screwball comedy, plus numerous plot twists and loads of rich, funny characters. *My Best Friend's Wedding* is an unexpectedly fresh new take on the old genre, a twisted, devious little movie that really sneaks up on you by being utterly unpredictable. Director P.J. Hogan (*Muriel's Wedding*) brings his flair for bright, quirky comedy and even quirkier musical numbers to this movie, which is loaded with catchy Burt Bacharach songs.

Everett is a major scene stealer -- the movie could have used a lot more of him because he's a complete delight. The gay friend is practically a stock character in movies nowadays, but Everett brings an unusual intelligence, dash and mischievousness to George -- imagine suave James Bond as a sensitive, smart gay man and you not only have George, but you're getting awfully close to the ideal male. The rest of the cast handles the many mood swings of *My Best Friend's Wedding* well -- this movie puts everybody through their emotive paces, particularly Diaz, who pulls off the difficult task of being likably perfect. Mulroney is unusually bland, an atypical romantic lead, but that's all part of this movie's cunning subterfuge -- Michael has no spark, and he's no match for firecracker Julianne, as combatant or mate. Rachel Griffiths (also from *Muriel's Wedding) is terrific as a saucy bridesmaid who has a memorable encounter with a racy ice sculpture.

*My Best Friend's Wedding* lacks a true-blue heroine, but the movie itself is like an old-fashioned romantic comedienne, and the audience is the unsuspecting victim of this unlikely romance, starting out at odds, resistant, uncertain, and finally, won over by its unconventional charms.


Speed 2 (1997)

Cruising isn't exactly a high excitement activity. It implies a certain languor, a leisurely lifestyle, a wandering nature. It does not imply speed. The oxymoronic title of *Speed 2: Cruise Control* is meant to be punny, since most of the action, such as it is, occurs on a cruise ship. But there's a lot more cruising than speeding in this waterlogged high seas adventure. Snooze Control would have been a more apt title for this damp, derivative *Love Boat* meets *The Poseidon Adventure* meets *Under Siege*. Were it not insufferably irritating, *Speed 2* would have been merely insufferably boring.

Among the uncommon irritants to which this movie subjects its audience are emergency lights that flash constantly for at least half the movie, and the shaky camera effect, suggesting a drunken steadicam operator, that is *Speed 2*'s primary stylistic effect. As an effect, and used properly and with restraint, the shaky camera can create a sense of tension, but as it is abused here, it is more likely to cause seasickness and, in vulnerable individuals, epileptic seizures. Let me be the first to suggest an instant moratorium on the rampant misuse of this nauseating effect in entertainment.

But back to that cruise ship. Annie (Sandra Bullock), charming heroine and ersatz bus driver of *Speed*, finds herself on the *Seabourn Legend* with her new cop boyfriend Alex (Jason Patric). All is well until a mad bomber (Willem Dafoe) hijacks the boat using smoke bombs disguised as golf balls. Geiger the bomber is disgruntled because his employer fired him when he became terminally ill with copper poisoning as a result of designing cruise ship computer systems. Or so he says. Geiger takes lots of pills and periodically applies leeches to himself, when he isn't planting golf balls in the air vents, throwing people overboard and laughing maniacally. Geiger is no mere terrorist, however; his elaborate and nefarious plot is actually a ruse designed to divert attention while he steals jewels from the ship's vaults as the terrified passengers abandon ship. Of course, none of this would have happened in Canada, where they have national health insurance.

Geiger's plan goes awry, as such plans always do, and Alex, Annie and a bunch of whiny passengers are stranded on the ship, which is cruising towards a Caribbean island at a terrifying 17 knots (the land equivalent of about 21 miles per hour, or, less than half the velocity of the runaway bus in *Speed*). Why doesn't everyone just jump off the ship? Apparently they'll be pureed into fish food by the massive propellers, unless, of course, they jump off the back of the boat, where they'll be safely whooshed out to sea, but nobody ever thinks of that. That's the problem with stressful situations and dumb movies -- nobody ever thinks of the right thing to do at the right time.

The plot of *Speed 2*, scripted by Randall McCormick and Jeff Nathanson from director Jan DeBont's story, has enough holes in it to sink the Bismarck. There's not a single lifeline in the form of decent subplot, dialogue, character development, or humor, either. Most of the lifeless dialogue involves characters reporting on events in the movie with a blow-by-blow account of the action, sort of like watching the Olympics, only much less interesting. Since he's a saucy villain, Geiger gets the wittiest lines this movie has to offer, and says memorably uninspired things like "Let's see how he likes that!" and "How do you like your vacation now?"

The closest *Speed 2* gets to character development and humor is taking characters from *Speed* and placing them in similar situations in *Speed 2*. So Annie is once again taken hostage by a mad bomber, and hapless traveller Maurice (Glenn Plummer) once again has his vehicle commandeered by a cop on a more or less high speed chase. Oh, the irony. Meanwhile, Alex, the putative hero of this soggy tale, is so bloodless and dull that one suspects he's feeding a stash of leeches of his own. With all that dead weight, it's little wonder this leaky vessel sinks like a stone (although stuff like this usually floats).

Bullock works overtime to compensate for her zombie-like co-star -- a far better movie would have developed Annie into a full-fledged heroine, rather than devolving her character into a passive, imperiled Pauline. Bullock is quickly dragged under by the feckless Patric. Not one single emotion found purchase on his stony face, nor anywhere else on his person, throughout the entire movie, not even when he was barking orders at the poor little deaf girl who got stuck in the elevator. Dafoe gets all buggy-eyed in his effort to inject some life into the psycho du jour, to little effect. Temuera Morrison shows action-hero potential as first-mate Juliano, but like everyone else who actually bothers to act in this movie, the script gives him only one oar to row with, and he, too, goes down with the ship.

Despite every desperate measure taken to pump interest into the underinflated, hyperventilating *Speed 2*, this movie is slower than a slow boat to China. There's lots of screaming and shaking and swimming and quaking, with big boats, little boats, sail boats and even menacing oil tankers, but none of it adds up to anything other than sound and fury. Long before the laughably idiotic and headache-inducing climax, *Speed 2* makes like the *Titanic* and capsizes.


Con Air (1997)

A good action movie plot is like a good car: once it gets you where you need to go, you don't have to worry about it anymore. Utilitarian simplicity works best, not something with a lot of bells and whistles and complicated parts that take attention and effort to figure out. Fuel, fire, zoom.

*Con Air* has a simple, utilitarian plot with lots of fuel, fire and zoom. Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage, with a Southern drawl and sounding exactly like Hi, his dopey character in *Raising Arizona*) is a highly decorated Army Ranger who goes to prison for killing a man in a bar brawl, leaving behind a pregnant wife. When he's paroled seven years later, he ends up on an airplane transporting several of the world's worst prisoners: serial killers, serial rapists, serial lunatics, and other remorseless recidivists, the kind of hardened criminals that make Republicans open the coffers wide. When the prisoners hijack the plane, only Poe stands between civilization and two dozen bloodthirsty villains, but being a selflessly heroic sort, and, thanks to his military training, a human deadly weapon to boot, Poe is up to the task even though it might mean never seeing his wife, or the daughter he's never met. On the ground, US Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) suspects Poe is a good guy, and battles with bloodthirsty bureaucrats who want to shoot down the plane.

The simplicity of *Con Air* -- bad guys try to get from point A to point B, good guy tries to stop them -- leaves lots of room for big bangs, and this movie has them in spades: huge, fiery, technicolor explosions, all manner of vehicular mayhem, brutal fist-fights, blazing shoot-outs, in short, an exhaustive barrage of violence, stunts and special effects that result in a seemingly endless string of climaxes. *Con Air* isn't a movie that never ends, it's a movie that does virtually nothing else.

The thing is, when you've seen one explosion, you've pretty much seen 'em all, and the same goes for car chases, plane crashes, gun fights, and so on. First-time director Simon West is an anti-auteur, leaving virtually no stylistic imprint whatsoever on this film, save for some fairly cornball slo-mo effects, so he doesn't add anything artistic or innovative to the action, although *Con Air* is abundantly energetic and fast-paced. West is a director who, like the plot, doesn't get in the way, which is far preferable to an in-the-way director whose style is incoherently flashy and meaningless.

*Con Air* is as entertaining as it is because of a witty script by Scott Rosenberg. The best moments of this movie happen when *Con Air* occasionally slows down to refuel before resuming the mayhem anew. The abundant villains are not a complex, shades-of-grey lot, but neither are they standard-issue movie psychos. Each man possesses his own colorful moniker: there's ring leader Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom (John Malkovich), an indiscriminate mass murderer and phrenologist's dream with a bald pate, "Diamond Dog" Jones (Ving Rhames), a black militant who blew up an NRA convention, and everybody's favorite psycho, Garland "The Marietta Mangler" Greene (Steve Buscemi), a mild-mannered cannibal and a loquacious travelling companion who arrives a la Hannibal Lecter ("I love your work" Cyrus tells him). Poe's only pals are his former cellmate Baby-O (Mykelti Williamson), a near-comatose insulin-dependent diabetic, and Bishop (Rachel Ticotin), a prison guard who spends most of the film manacled and menaced by serial rapist "Johnny 23" (Danny Trejo). With the exception of "Sally Can't Dance" (Renoly), an unfortunate drag queen stereotype, the cons of *Con Air* are an ugly but witty bunch, armed with pithy one-liners *and* rocket launchers -- these fun-loving fellas really love their work . There are at least as many laughs in *Con Air* as there are explosions, and that's quite a few.

*Con Air* is armed with a self-mocking tone, an awareness, verging on self-parody, of how silly all this testosterone-fueled noise and naughtiness actually is. This is most evident in the performances of Cage and Malkovich, who all but wink when they deliver lines that are knowingly absurd and extreme variations of archetypal villain-hero dialogue. *Con Air* seems to lose this smart self-awareness, however, when the movie reaches its real conclusion, and goes out in what should be a blaze of glory. After so many premature climaxes, the final act is really an anti-climactic lunge for the finish line, a stunt-filled, cliche-riddled, emotionally corny last gasp, an all-out effort to top the movie off with bigger, faster, wilder action that only betrays the rest of the film.

*Con Air* gets off the ground and flies high because it's smart and funny. When this movie crash lands, it is because it dumbs down and flies too low.


Addicted to Love (1997)

An effective romantic comedy has to overcome the inevitability rule. That’s the rule that potential lovers, be they boys and girls, boys and boys, girls and girls, or any imaginative permutations thereof, must fall in love by the end of the movie. Without romance, the romantic comedy obviously isn’t. So the trick is to keep the audience interested until the inevitable occurs, by making the path to true love as full of potholes as possible. This generally involves various shenanigans, numerous complications, vociferous denials by one or both parties, and, almost always, at least one other person who is in love with the one of the other two. Everything gets sorted out in the end, and everybody goes home happy and stuffed full of popcorn. The end.

Boy, does Addicted To Love have potholes. Sam (Matthew Broderick) is in love with his childhood sweetheart Linda (Kelly Preston). But Linda leaves for New York and falls in love with Anton (Tcheky Karyo). So Sam abandons his career as an astronomer in order to gaze upon Linda in her little downtown lovenest. Enter Maggie (Meg Ryan), Anton’s ex, who went a little psycho when he dumped her for Linda. Maggie invades the crumbling, condemned tenement where Sam spies on Linda with an elaborate camera obscura, and sets up an equally elaborate bugging system so the two stalkers can also listen in as Linda and Anton have sex, and eat, and eat during sex, and so on. Will Maggie and Sam fall in love? But of course.

First, however, they have to cause Anton and Linda to break up through various overly elaborate and complicated schemes. Sam does it because he thinks he still wants Linda back. Maggie doesn’t want Anton back, and she won’t settle for just ruining his relationship -- she wants to ruin his entire life. These two wounded hearts take a substantial detour into wrath and resentment on their way to true love.

Addicted To Love has replaced Cupid’s arrows with poison arrows, and that’s a fatal misfire. A dark romantic comedy isn’t a bad idea, but the execution of this one just doesn’t work. The dialogue and acting are stylized in a way that is stiff rather than witty -- there’s an obvious attempt here to make the sort of wild screwball romances that Wilder and Hawks used to make, but it falls flat because the script by Robert Gordon is sloppy and heavy-handed, with too little wit and too much venom. First-time director Griffin Dunne adds nifty visual touches to the movie, particularly in the interesting use of the camera obscura, but his nice style doesn’t hide the unpleasantness of the story.

Not one of the principle characters in Addicted To Love is particularly appealing, and even worse, it’s next to impossible to understand what any of them see in each other. That is pretty difficult to do with cute actors like Ryan and Broderick, but, alas, they get dragged down along with the rest of the movie. Addicted To Love features a pretty morose and unsympathetic bunch: Sam and Maggie are motivated by jealousy and revenge fantasies, Anton is a scoundrel, and Linda is a flighty codependent who loves the one she’s with, whoever that may be. These are not exactly good candidates for healthy, happily ever after romance.

Addicted To Love has its moments, as when Linda repeatedly sends her long-faced Dad (Nesbitt Blaisdell) to read Dear John letters to her victims-- but those moments are too few and far between, while the movie too frequently stretches credulity, even for a comedy, by being downright dumb (like when Sam gazes at galaxies through his telescope *at noon*.) The plots hatched by Sam and Maggie are too far-fetched and generally downright cruel -- by the end of the movie, creepy, misogynistic Anton is the most sympathetic character, and even he is still a jerk.

The romantic comedy is essentially a character study -- everything is designed to move characters towards romantic epiphany and a change of heart. But there are no real changes of heart in this cynical movie, and there are definitely no epiphanies of any kind. In fact, there is precious little heart at all in Addicted To Love. Taking the romance and love out of a romantic comedy is like taking the murder out of a murder mystery -- what you’re left with is neither comedy nor mystery. There’s nothing to hang your hat on in Addicted To Love -- if any of these characters ever were addicted to love, they’ve long been cured.