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.