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Face/Off (1997)

Paramount Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 9/11/2007

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 8/30/2007

It may sound far-fetched (to me at least), but I'm sure that there are hardcore movie fans out there, who don't venture outside of their native land for cinematic entertainment. For example, there may be people who have been hearing for years how great director John Woo is without ever having seen any of his films from Hong Kong. Thus, they've had to base their opinion on the six Hollywood movies that Woo has made. If that's the case, they may wonder what all of hype is about, as Woo's American films have been a mixed-bag at best. His 1997 entry Face/Off is certainly the weirdest of these films and it's being re-released on DVD to celebrate its 10th anniversary.

As Face/Off opens, we are introduced to two men who are arch-enemies. Sean Archer (John Travolta) is an FBI agent, whose son was murdered by a terrorist-for-hire named Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). Archer has devoted his life to catching Troy, and because of this, he is very distant towards his wife, Eve (Joan Allen), and his daughter, Jamie (Dominique Swain). Troy is the flipside of this. He is carefree and erratic, showing true affection for no one save for his brother, Pollux (Allessandro Nivola). Troy has just planted a bomb in downtown Los Angeles and he's headed for the airport for his getaway. Archer and his team learn of Troy's departure and intercept him on the runway. After a violent gunfight, Troy is finally captured, although he's in a coma.

Archer should be pleased that he's finally captured his nemesis, but knowing that a bomb is out there somewhere robs him of his victory. Archer is approached Dr. Hollis Miller (CCH Pounder) concerning a new procedure in organ transplant. She proposes that they take Troy's face and place it on Archer's body so that he can infiltrate Troy's gang. Archer is skeptical at first, but he reluctantly agrees. Following the procedure, Archer (now with Troy's face) is taken to the prison where Pollux is being housed. He is to gain Pollux's trust and learn of their explosive plan. But, things go awry when Troy awakens from his coma, learns of Archer's plan and sets about to sabotage it. Archer must now convince everyone around him of who he is while stopping Troy's new plan.

I distinctly remember the trailer for Face/Off (which is a great trailer and I'm glad that it's been included on this DVD) and when I saw the film in the theater, I thought that I had a fairly good idea of what the film was about. Man, was I wrong. Going in, I thought that this was going to be a fairly standard action film where the FBI agent went undercover as the villain. I didn't know about the depths of the science-fiction elements of the story. Being a fan of John Woo's films, I knew that his movies, no matter how wild, were grounded in reality, so the fantastic nature of Face/Off came as a complete surprise. They literally take Nicolas Cage's face off and graft it to John Travolta's body. Then, Archer finds himself in a futuristic prison where the prisoners wear magnetic boots so that they can't escape. (And Drew Carey's brother yells at them all of the time.) Simply put, Face/Off isn't your typical John Woo action film.

But, then again, it is. The movie features all of the trademarks of a John Woo movie. We have two men, who are on opposite sides of the law, squaring off (or "facing off"). We have an unusual level of emotion for an action film. And we have amazing action set pieces where characters fly through the air firing two pistols at once. (I can't watch these scenes now without thinking of Hot Fuzz.) These are the traditional John Woo action scenes which feature bodies flying, bullets ricocheting, and plenty of slow motion.

All of these elements combined lead to the answer of why Face/Off doesn't exactly work. The movie simply has too much of everything. The action scenes here are good, but they don't compare to Woo's Hong Kong stuff and they seem to go on forever. Again, it's not unusual for Woo to bring emotion into his stories, but this one lays on the melodrama. And, at 140 minutes, the movie is simply too long. By the time that we get the next-to-the-last fight scene where Woo releases a flock of pigeons in a church, even the most die-hard Woo fan will be rolling their eyes. And then we have the two lead actors. At first, it's fun seeing these two hams going at it. But, Nicolas "No one has every asked me to overact" Cage and John "I have to dance in every movie" Travolta begin to imitate one another and what seemed like a good idea gets run into the ground.

Following Face/Off no one can ever accuse John Woo of being a director who isn't diverse, because this genre-bending film is about as diverse as one can get. Part macho action film, part sci-fi thriller, part melodrama, Face/Off tries to be many things at once. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't truly satisfy on any level. Sure, Woo's action scenes are great, and it should be noted that this movie opens with a huge action scene which would be the finale of most movies, but they can't fix the parts of the film which come across as silly. (Or preposterous. Don't get me started on the plotholes in this movie. Why would they leave Archer's face just sitting out?) There's no doubt that Face/Off is a fun film, but those looking for something comparable to Hard-Boiled will have to look elsewhere.

Face/Off spites itself on DVD courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. This new DVD replaces the previous release from October, 1998. The movie has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image looks very good, as the picture is sharp and clear. There is essentially no grain to be had here and no defects from the source material. Despite the dark subject matter, Woo has shot the film in a very natural style and the image is well-balanced and shows a great deal of depth. Colors look fine, as do skin tones. I did see some mild video noise at times, but otherwise, the transfer looked fine. The DVD features both a DTS 6.1 audio track, as well as a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX track. Both tracks sound fantastic and really bring the great sound design of the film to life. The dialogue and sound effects are fine. The stereo, surround, and subwoofer effects are great and the sound truly envelopes the viewer during the action scene. When compared side-by-side, the DTS track had more "oomph!", but both were very good.

This new 2-disc set contains a nice assortment of extras. Disc 1 offers two AUDIO COMMENTARIES. The first features director John Woo along with writers Mike Werb & Michael Colleary. This is an informative chat, as the three talk in-depth about the script and the shooting of the film. The writers talk about their concepts and the evolution of the script, while Woo talks about his shooting style. The second commentary features Werb & Colleary again, and as one would expect, it's redundant, as they repeat many of the points raised in the first commentary. Next, we have 7 DELETED SCENES which run about 8 minutes. These can be viewed with optional commentary from Woo, Werb, & Colleary. There are some interesting moments here, but these are mainly extended portions of existing scenes. The "alternate ending" is quite brief, silly, and doesn't make much sense. Disc 2 offers "The Light and The Dark: Making Face/Off". This 64-minute featurette gives an in-depth behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. Through modern and archive interviews, we hear from almost the entire main cast and crew, from Travolta down to the gun designer. This featurette examines the creation of the script, the casting and the characters, John Woo's style, the stunts and action sequences, and the makeup FX. We get an equally in-depth look at the life of the director in "John Woo: A Life in Pictures" (26 minutes). Woo takes us through his life, from his birth to his time in Hollywood, talking about how movies impacted his life. We also hear from Woo's long-time producing partner Terence Chang, and for some reason, director John Carpenter. Finally, we have the awesome THEATRICAL TRAILER for the film.

On May 20, 2008, Paramount Home Entertainment brought Face/Off to Blu-ray Disc. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 25 Mbps. The image is sharp and clear, as it shows only a minute amount of grain and some very minor defects from the source material. However, I did notice something odd. At least twice in Chapter 5, white marks appear at the top of the screen, just below the black bars. Is this part of the time code or something? The darker scenes are a tad too dark, but the image doesn't present any overt video noise or artifacting. The disc offers both a DTS-ES 6.1 audio track, which runs at 48 kHz and 1.5 Mbps, and a Dolby Digital 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and 640 kbps. If at all possible, don't even both with the Dolby track, as it sounds even weaker than its counterpart found on a DVD. While the DTS track isn't lossless, it still sounds very good. The stereo separation is excellent and we are treated to nearly non-stop surround effects. The bass effects during the action sequences are very good.

The extras on the Blu-ray Disc are the same as those found on the DVD.

Review Copyright 2007 by Mike Long