Face/Off (1997)

It’s as if someone tried to make a copy of a John Woo film and crammed in all his signature quirks.

After all, the Catholic Seminary-trained Woo loves to put Christian symbolisms in his films, so here we have a Catholic funeral, at a chapel crammed full of Catholic art and a huge crucifix, complete with a real Priest (check the credits) spouting Latin.

And there are Woo’s signature doves flying around throughout the funeral and the gunfight that follows.  Lots of them.  All over the place.

Inside the chapel.

And then there is the mother of all John Woo Mexican standoffs, with no fewer than five people pointing guns at each other.

Yep.  Five.

All of which makes it very strange that John Woo actually filmed this one.

The basic situation is fairly simple, with John Travolta as a Federal agent obsessed with trying to capture the wacky terrorist (Nicholas Cage) who killed his son.  But it gets very strange once he captures Nick.

You see, the terrorist left a particularly nasty chemical weapon behind and the only way to find it is for John to wear Nick’s face. Literally.

So before long, something goes wrong, Nick puts on John’s face and they’ve switched places.

And it is all just an excuse for non-stop action movie nonsense.

But it is the best action movie nonsense: after all, it was directed by John Woo.

I have to give him a lot of credit, though, for the way he handles the central gimmick, here.  It is inherently gory, and one can easily imagine the shuddery mess we might have got in the hands of some more horror oriented director.  Instead, he is discrete and only hits at the gore, while giving us the freaky image of John Travolta’s face in storage.  It takes what might have been something far too dark for such an inherently silly film and makes it playful instead.

Not quite as playful as the Czech comedy, You Are a Widow, Sir, but enough that we can accept something this disturbing without being too grossed out by it.

The secret super prison is quite an interesting notion, as well, with plenty of ridiculous high tech gadgetry, but I’ll admit it has a disturbing edge as well.  We normally don’t think our country could do such things, and would expect to find it in some other country.  And this was even before Guantanamo Bay was in the news.

Not that it ever had magnetic boots, electric torture chairs and nature imagery on big screens.

As thoroughly mocked and ridiculed as this film has been, I was amazed to see that it actually has a 7.3 rating on Imdb, which puts it in, oh, the top ten percent or so of films, maybe higher.

Mind you, that high score also reflects my opinion of the film as I enjoyed it thoroughly — perhaps as much because of its over-the-top excesses as despite them.  There are endless windows for our heroes to smash through, countless moments when they leap through the air while blazing away with two huge guns, and lots of machine gun fire for them to run away from before jumping into nothingness.

Just like in a John Woo film.

I do have to wonder exactly what happened here, though:  did the studio insist that John include all of his stylistic signatures in the film?

Or, considering that Woo found the American film industry with its endless production  by committee meetings far too constrictive an environment after the creative freedom he had enjoyed in Hong Kong, is he deliberately mocking them?  Did he try to make a film that is a parody of a John Woo action film?

Could this all be an over-the-top and overblown joke?

I honestly don’t know.  But if it is, it’s one of the biggest, most extravagant, most action-packed, popcorn-ready jokes ever made.

So turn off your brain, swirl your overcoat around you dramatically (yet another signature element, right?) and load on the popcorn.  It’s non-stop fun.

It may not be much more than that, but it is definitely fun.

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