John Woo’s hyperbolic pairing of John Travolta and Nicolas Cage is generally regarded as the best of the director’s Hollywood ventures. It probably is, but it suffers from the same tonal extravagance as his lesser US efforts. The pleasures, such as they are, revolve around two heavyweight stars hamming it up with gusto, rather than action fireworks so pumped up with off-putting trademark Woo slow motion and jarring edits that they fail to impress.
I’m not quite sure why his US ventures have been so disappointing. Is it the clash of studios with a director who just wants to do his thing? Or the problems that arise when a director is unable to marry his approach with someone else’s script? Face/Off is, in parts, replete with a strong sense of humour. But Woo’s shooting style pushes every melodramatic element to the point of parody. His operatic visuals make each sequence play like it’s the climax to the film, and so defuse the natural rhythms of the script. Occasionally a face-off is effective, but by this point in his career the expected choreographic flourishes dictate the approach and too often they just don’t serve the material. By the time we reach the climactic speedboat chase, it’s an action sequence too far. Without the lure of individuals caught in gunplay, Woo is going through the motions; it becomes a distancing spectacle of obvious stunt doubles pursuing unclear objectives.
When a film begins amped up to ten, it requires a finely wrought script and acutely judged direction if is to maintain that level. Face/Off attempts to be as much a domestic satire as an overblown action movie, but Woo pitches every scene at the same level. It’s visually deafening. Part of the problem is that he has no interest in reining in his actors. Nic Cage is a show-off even at his most demur, and I’m generally a fan, but he’s too much here. As Castor Troy he’s a bug-eyed, drug-fuelled, priapic cartoon villain. He crosses over from amusing scenery chewing into plain wearisome. And when he’s Sean Archer he overdoes it again, all doe-eyed sensitivity or OTT fakery of Castor’s mannerisms. Travolta has quite a bit of fun as Troy, and there are some amusing lines about his love handles and chin, but it’s not so much playing someone else as Travolta doing his standard villain type.
While the scenes of Troy infiltrating Archer’s home and family are the best ones, they’re never as clever or witty as they need to be. Joan Allen plays it completely straight as Eve Archer, adding a grounding absent elsewhere in the movie. There’s strong support from the likes of Gina Gershon and Alessandro Nivola. But it’s Nick Cassavetes who has the most fun, as one of Troy’s associates. His scenes really work, perhaps because the environment is so heightened at this point in the picture (the characters are wantonly abusing substances).
The argument, reasonable to an extent, might be that if you start with a premise this loopy, and filled with such copious plot holes, the only way to go with it is to emphasise the absurdity (via Woo pyrotechnics). There’s a near-future setting, but surgically removing faces (and not just the faces, everybody part requires attention, particularly if Troy is to pass himself off as Archer in the marital bed) is still about as plausible as if the characters had magically swapped consciousnesses. But we’ve seen that, in actual comedy vehicles. You can’t help but conclude, despite the relative entertainment value, that Woo is a poor fit for the material. Rather than embracing empty, muscular action as he does, another director might have developed the script’s satirical opportunities.