Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 10 July 2004
The samurai is without debate the most apparent character in early Japanese film. Like his American equivalent, the cowboy, the character is a true individualist — often hired to protect a larger group, often embodying sharpened human characteristics, and often alone. It is expected, by this measure, that both the samurai and cowboy, both enlisted to prevent or end crime, when opposed against another of his type meet the height of his conflict. This makes (and has made) for engaging material since the genesis of film.
The image of two samurais with crossed swords is emblematic of two masters colliding at the height of their skill (likewise for the cowboy frozen in a mid-street duel). The action is a simple construct that diametrically opposes good and evil. Once frozen in stalemate, the image of the two characters functions secondarily to visually describe cinematic tension, and it is often used.
Scenes that borrow or use these qualities are staple in most any contemporary crime film: two or more characters are equipped with life-ending weapons pointed at each other’s heart — this action is tensely sustained. Though it is a standard mechanism of plot, the image persists to communicate particular traits in characters who reveal little of their personality.
This entire exposition is necessary in describing the take of director John Woo. The shootout in contemporary film serves the same function as the samurai duel. And, considering the image’s consistency in Asian cinema and Woo’s background in the same, the influence becomes distinct.
Although the samurai duel has evolved (swords are now handguns) there persists a transcendent quality to this cinematic device: that is, the timeless balance between beauty and horror, sacred and profane, and ultimately good and evil. This is realized in the vocabulary of Woo, whose shootouts are complimented by exaggerated images of violence (wounds and blood) and beauty (doves and classical music).
To Woo’s individual credit, no director has single-handedly defined the Asian crime thriller; he is responsible for many of its conventions as well as faults. Little narrative diversion has been made in Woo’s career. This is forgiven; given the prolificacy of cheap kung-fu flicks, the Asian crime thriller is a welcome trend, even if Woo has directed the most known of the genre’s entries.
If the figurative volume of a film is controlled by a knob (careful directors turn it with delicate understanding in an effort to manipulate their audience’s reaction with moderation), then John Woo flips it up — all the way — at the start of most every action sequence in his films. A mere ten minutes into Face/Off (his fourth American film) each speaker voices loudly, and the screen mirrors the action with panicked visuals.
The concept of Face/Off is a multifaceted benchmark: it is John Woo’s best American film, a requisite entry in the library of action films, and it is an actor’s dream.
John Travolta and Nicolas Cage as the film’s respective representatives of good and evil is an example of near-perfect casting — not in regard to their abilities or execution but in their pairing. The actors’ careers have mirrored each other’s the past decade. Both have had their critical successes (Pulp Fiction, Leaving Las Vegas) and their many impotent failures.
Cage is firstly the film’s Bad Guy, Caster Troy, nemesis to Travolta’s Good Guy, Sean Archer. One is a master villain, the other a decorated FBI agent. Between them exists a personal vendetta: in a botched assassination attempt, Troy shot Archer, killing his son. Flash-forward six years, Troy has planted a ten-million dollar explosive device in the Los Angeles Convention Center. Archer, of course, is set to stop it.
The first action sequence isolates the two, expectedly, in an airport hanger, and functions to characterize them: Troy is flamboyant in talk and dress (he sports matching gold-plated handguns) and Archer is more composed, masking his hatred behind a sense of duty. Troy is apprehended with spontaneous creativity by being thrust into an iron gate by a jet engine. Archer examines the face of his enemy and releases a sigh postponed for six years.
But the bomb is still set, and Troy, in a coma, is unable to reveal any clues. Archer is determined to book Troy’s associates and to disable the bomb, though is met by the possibility that he cannot. He is convinced by his colleagues and a group of new-age surgeons to don the face, literally, of his nemesis and trick those associated with him. He does, and his efforts become complicated once Troy wakes from his coma, captures the same surgeons, receives Archer’s face, and executes all the Good Guys who know the secret. Troy, in Archer’s dress, drives to his nemesis’ house blasting music, and thirstily examines his wife.
The enduring feature of Face/Off’s concept is how it questions the nature of identity, and it is evident at large in the film. Though one’s actions may largely dictate their character, they are often misperceived once measured in the eyes of judgment. In a subtle action in the film’s exposition, Archer comes home to an argument between his wife and daughter — the younger was suspended from school after starting a fight. “Some kid made fun of her clothes” remits his wife.
The daughter is revealed in extreme close up, caked in eyeliner, with teased hair and a nose ring. This exaggerated façade paints a certain background for the character. Her plight as a teenager seeking identity is common for many teenagers in film, though here it is uniquely relevant. This issue is addressed by both her real and unreal fathers, and is an action that further rectifies the concept.
The plot contains enough clever twists to punctuate several films. Troy, as Archer, disables the bomb and becomes a hero; Archer, as Troy, is thus robbed of his prescribed task and is trapped by the identity of a convict in prison. Though the narrative conflict is resolved here, it does little to stifle the hatred the two principle characters retain for each other. The remainder of the film is all action.
Woo empties his bag of tricks with fervor in the film’s final hour. There are bullets and explosions aplenty, though there is also a rare and unexpected beauty to these scenes. Archer enters a church, flanked by doves, and observes a crucifix, below it rest flowers. Cut to Troy, behind him, with arms outstretched like a dying Christ. The two exchange lines of banter and the bullets fly. These abundant images serve no completing cause, though Woo’s ambition and creativity exemplifies what is an otherwise mundane action sequence.
Face/Off belongs in a genre strewn with failures. Even the rare successes (Die Hard and Speed among few others) contain distinct clichés. What redeems a successful action film is not the action at all, but rather the elements outside the characteristic package; though it deservingly earns praise for its technique, Face/Off is distinguished for its philosophy.