Face/Off: Special Collector’s Edition
September 18, 2007
It took two Hollywood films (Hard Target and Broken Arrow) before John Woo was allowed to cut loose with his trademark style on Face/Off (1997). The result was his most commercially and critically successful American film at that point in his career. However, for fans of his Hong Kong films, this one seemed like a highlight reel from his earlier work as Woo recycled many of his signature shots Birds flying in slow motion? Check. Guy Leaping in the air while firing two guns simultaneously? Check. Unfortunately, Face/Off marks the apex of his Hollywood career. Woo has done nothing since that’s been as good. So, to celebrate the film’s 10th anniversary, Paramount has revisited the film with a brand new special edition.
Notorious international terrorist Castor Troy (Cage) tries to kill the man determined to catch him – FBI agent Sean Archer (Travolta) but accidentally kills the man’s son. Understandably distraught, Archer makes it his life’s mission to catch Castor. The FBI agent gets a tip that Castor’s brother Pollux (Nivola) is chartering a private plane and that this is his chance to get Castor because the siblings always fly together. In the ensuing chase, Archer arrests Pollux and puts Castor into a coma.
A problem arises when Archer and his team find out that the Troy brothers have planted a bomb somewhere in Los Angeles and that when it goes off, a significant portion of the population will be decimated. Pollux will only talk to his brother so Archer is given the option to undergo radical plastic surgery that involves him swapping faces with the comatose Castor. Naturally, Archer initially rejects such a preposterous procedure but changes his mind when none of Castor’s gang knows the bomb’s location. Archer assumes Castor’s identity but when the terrorist wakes up from his coma, he takes the FBI agent’s face. Both of these procedures are done secretly so that very few people know that the two men have swapped identities. And this is where the fun begins as John Travolta and Nicolas Cage get to play each other and have a blast sending up their distinctive acting tics.
Cage seems to be having a lot of fun as hedonistic nut job Castor Troy. We are introduced to his character masquerading as a priest and he indulges in a little bit of gonzo behaviour that provides a glimmer into the unpredictable actor that he was in the 1980s and early 1990s. After the face swap, Cage then has to act like Travolta and internalize his emotions. Conversely, Travolta plays Archer as a driven, no-nonsense man but really gets to cut loose once he begins acting like Castor. This is particularly evident in the scene where he meets his daughter Jamie (Swain) for the first time and flirts with her to the strains of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” by James Brown.
Woo works hard to sell the film’s admittedly outlandish gimmick by throwing all kinds of scientific mumbo jumbo at us and lingering on shots of spiffy looking technology. The swapping of identities also allows the filmmaker to examine one of his favourite themes: how two people can exhibit similar characteristics but be on opposite sides of the law and on opposite sides of the moral spectrum. It is nice to see Woo finally given a decent-sized budget to play with and two big-time movie stars like Cage and Travolta to work with. Despite a few audacious glimmers, like staging a chaotic gunfight around a child listening to “Under the Rainbow,” we still get a recycling of Woo’s stylistic trademarks. However, this can be somewhat forgiven as it was the first real exposure for many North Americans to his work on a mainstream level.
The first disc features an audio commentary by director John Woo and screenwriters Mike Werb and Michael Colleary. Woo says that he initially passed on the project because he didn’t think that he could do a science fiction film, but after working with CGI on Broken Arrow (1996), felt more comfortable with the idea. Also, later drafts removed most of the SF elements and emphasized the thriller aspects. The writers say that Woo concentrated on the characters and their emotions in their conversations together.
Also included is an additional commentary with Werb and Colleary that features a lot of repeated comments from the previous track. They mention that the opening scene was originally a flashback in the middle of the film but Woo moved it up in order to provide motivation for Archer’s decision to undergo the face transplant. Werb and Colleary stress that they wanted to write an action film with a villain that was just as interesting as the hero. They also praise Woo’s trust in their script.
There are six deleted scenes and alternate ending with optional commentary by Woo, Werb and Colleary. There’s a nice, reflective moment where Archer spends the night in his dead son’s room before his surgery and also two action sequences that are extended.
The second disc has a well-made documentary entitled, “The Light and The Dark: Making Face/Off” that can be viewed in five separate featurettes or altogether. Early drafts were much more steeped in the SF genre and Cage and Travolta talk about how they approached their roles, mimicking each other. Cast and crew praise Woo and his signature style and how well he works with actors. The film’s elaborate practical, visual effects and stunts are all examined. Finally, Woo sums up the film – for him, it’s all about family and how Archer achieves closure with his.
“John Woo: A Life in Pictures” is a 30-minute profile of the filmmaker, from his humble childhood, living poor in a bad neighbourhood to a successful Hollywood director. This featurette also takes a look at his cinematic influences and what he incorporates from them in his own work. It also takes a brief look at some of his key Hong Kong work but nothing too detailed for hardcore fans. This doc acts mainly as a primer for newcomers to his work.