Friday, April 01, 2011

“I want to take his face... off. Eyes, nose, skin, teeth. It's coming off.”

So, uh, 90s action movies. As a whole, they kind of are taken more seriously than 80s action movies, which oddly enough makes them goofier. Maybe it’s all the slow motion walking away from explosions shots. Anyway, 1997 gave rise to Face/Off, in which, well, let’s get to that in the next section.

Sean Archer (John Travolta) is an obsessed FBI agent on the trail of the “terrorist for hire” and gleeful psycopath Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). A while back, Troy accidentally killed Archer’s young son with a bullet that was meant for the agent, and when Archer captures Troy in a dramatic airport sequence, an experimental medical procedure is performed that physically swaps the faces of the two so that Archer can approach Pollux Troy (Alessandro Nivola), Castor’s brother who has information on a deadly bomb plot.

Naturally, Castor Troy (with Archer’s face) breaks out and assumes the FBI agent’s life because fair’s fair, and it gives him an opportunity to make all kinds of trouble for Archer. Obsession, gunfights, and realizations of a “we’re not so different, you and I” nature about.

This was actually John Woo’s second foray into western cinema, and it has all of his signature “heroic bloodshed” touches. Jumping through the air firing two pistols at the same time, big explosions, and doves juxtaposed with violence. To be fair, the action sequences are all incredibly expensive looking and incredibly good. The rest of the movie is kind of eh. Visually its fine, but in terms of pacing, I think it goes on too long.

Written by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, the script is, well, mostly just “eh.” There’s touches of mythological humor (Castor & Pollux Troy) and there are the occasional bits of very entertaining dialogue, but overall, there’s really little that draws me to the movie. Castor Troy, when played by Cage is easily the best character in the movie, but Sean Archer (as Travolta or Cage) never really strays past the whole “Good but obsessed FBI agent.”

The movie also walks a weird line between “ridiculous amusing” a “ridiculous annoying.” The whole face transplant thing was a pretty far-out concept back in 97, but since it’s the premise of the movie, its both essential and it works for all the crazy pseudoscience they came up to make it work in-movie. (Of course face transplants are a thing that is real now). Honestly, the part where the movie really, I mean really lost me, was the remote prison where Pollox Troy is kept after his capture at the beginning of the movie. So, it’s on an oil rig somewhere in the ocean, and it houses only the MOST dangerous prisoners imaginable, AND the method to keep the prisoners in check is to clap them all in giant metal, MAGNETIC boots that, in the need for a lockdown, literally lock the prisoners down in place. For a sci-fi film I could probably buy that conceit, but for something set in the 90s where the big narrative conceit you have to accept is Nicholas Cage & John Travolta swapping faces (and hair, and height, and voice, and… well, see that’s why it’s a narrative conceit you just have to accept), I just can’t accept MagnetBoot Penitentiary. I mean, what budget committee signed off on that project? The logistics of the undertaking had to be absurd, not to mention the cost of flying food and fresh guards in to relieve the garrison.

The original music by John Powell gets the job done with a mix of orchestral and electronic cues, which works for 90s spy-related movies.

I didn’t dig Face/Off. While the action sequences are impressive, John Woo has a great flair for visual style and Cage & Travolta do admirable jobs imitating each other, there’s just something about the movie that bugged me. Sure, the magnetic boots thing didn’t help and John Travolta just doesn’t do anything for me cinematically, but I think its that, in the quieter moments, the movie tends to bog down and drag itself out. Its as if the movie wants to be viewed as a goofy 90’s action movie AND a serious psychological thriller and it didn’t impress me very much.

Turns out there's a lot of face touching in this movie. SYMBOLISM!

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