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'Face/Off': Trading Places

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 27, 1997

"Face/Off," John Woo’s third Hollywood movie, is the maddest, most enjoyable blockbuster of the summer. A delirious mixture of spectacular gun battles, furious explosions and breathtaking stunt work, it’s also one of the strangest stories to ever get the green light at a Hollywood studio. You have to take your hat off to Paramount Studios for allowing such inspired weirdness to see the light of day.

Of course, with the enthusiastic participation of stars Nicolas Cage and John Travolta (as well as the box office success of Woo’s previous film, "Broken Arrow"), they must have felt some confidence in the project. But still -- FBI agent Sean Archer (Travolta) has spent six years searching for Castor Troy (Cage), a psychotic terrorist who killed the agent’s young son. Finally, he intercepts the killer as his private plane prepares to leave. Although the terrorist is surrounded by a helicopter, armored vehicles and SWAT gunmen, he forces the pilot to attempt a takeoff. A gun-blazing, incendiary scene follows, leaving corpses strewn across the runway, the plane smashed up and Troy apparently dead.

Case closed? Of course not. The FBI learns that, just before the airport incident, Troy and his equally psychotic brother, Pollux (Alessandro Nivola), wired a nerve-gas bomb somewhere in Los Angeles. In two days, an agent tells Archer, this lethal payload will flatten everything for a square mile, then pepper the city with fallout "a tad worse than Gulf War Syndrome." Only tight-lipped Pollux knows the secret. What to do?

A crazy suggestion is made -- the kind of wacky, out-of-this-world idea that only director Woo would go for. Thanks to cutting-edge (so to speak) laser surgery, Archer can literally, and seamlessly, trade faces with Troy. To complete the ultimate disguise, a microchip will be inserted into Archer’s larynx so that his voice patterns match Troy’s. By pretending to be Troy, Archer can infiltrate the prison, hook up with Pollux and pump his "brother" for information. By any standard, this is a bizarre, crazy idea.

"I’ll do it," says Archer.

Of course, why have one gruesome facial transplant when you can have two? After having his face removed, Troy awakes from his deathlike coma (hey, wouldn’t you?) and finds himself looking less than 100 percent. But with the help of two henchmen, he locates Archer’s old face (lying in a vat of preservative fluid) and rounds up the surgeon.

"What do you want?" asks the surgeon.

"Take one [expletive] guess," says Troy, his red, oozy features reflected in the doctor’s glasses.

Twisted? Demented? Completely unbelievable? Sure, but what’s your point? It’s also extremely funny and brilliantly executed. You find yourself cringing with horror, yet participating willfully in the suspension of disbelief. The story, by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, is tongue-in-cheek and deadly serious, all at the same time. By forcing the characters to switch roles, they treat us to a dramatically delicious situation. The performers respond to this situation with delightful results.

On one side, we have Archer-as-Troy (that’s Cage pretending to be Travolta underneath), rumbling with convicts and reluctantly tumbling with Troy’s tough girlfriend, Sasha (Gina Gershon). On the other, we watch Troy-as-Archer (that’s Travolta pretending to be Cage underneath), living with (and, of course, making love to) Archer’s wife in the suburbs, and playing Daddy to a rebellious, voluptuous teenage daughter, Jamie (Dominique Swain).

"You’ll be seeing a lot of changes round here," the false, leering Archer tells Jamie. "Papa’s got a brand new bag."

With "Hard Target" and "Broken Arrow," Chinese-born Woo showed little of the imaginative, almost delicate destructibility of his early art-house hits ("The Killer" and "Hard Boiled"). But now, with his trademark slow-motion action sequences, the story of two similar men (one good, one evil) brought unavoidably together and a kinetic mastery, he has finally imported the full array of his talent. I don’t just recommend this, I dare you to go.

FACE/OFF (R) — Contains considerable violence, highly destructive explosions, profanity and sexual situations.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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