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Travolta and Cage Mix It Up Magnificently in 'Face/Off'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 27, 1997

"Face/Off," the new John Woo film, is superb late-pagan entertainment. I can see it on a double bill with "The Burning of 100 Christians" or "Watch the Alligators Eat the Slaves" at some suburban Roman multiplex, circa A.D. 212.

Almost indefensibly violent, the film is one of those whirligigs of wit, barbaric energy, blood spatters and firepower that will be adored by the morally retarded among us -- like me -- and loathed by the morally superior. But who has ever cared about them?

Woo, the insanely gifted and possibly insane Hong Kong transplant, still hasn't mastered the American cultural idiom. He doesn't know it's cool to be cool. But that's not bad, it's good: He's not afraid to give vent to his Chinese heart, and amid the slaughter, the cruelty, the jovial deconstruction of civilization, stick in some homey schmaltz about the sanctity of family.

So the core of the film isn't the nerve gas bomb that looks like a hi-fi from a Playboy cartoon busily ticking down in the Los Angeles convention center, where if detonated it would depopulate a square mile of that town. No, it's the family of Sean Archer, FBI stud, crummy husband, mourning father, a man so blighted with grief and rage that he has blowtorched the love from his own soul, condemning his family to live in the winter of his discontent. So this is really a family values pic. To revitalize the family, about 2,000 people have to die. So? What's your problem with that? Are you against family values?

Archer -- a grave, tense John Travolta -- is obsessed with capturing a professional terrorist and world-class pyscho named Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage at highest pitch) -- because Troy shot through Archer and into Archer's son some years ago. The boy did not recover.

After that event is re-created, the film proper opens with Castor's capture at an airfield, a sequence so full of kinetic spasms and handgun acrobatics and explosions that you might think you'd walked in on the end of any other film. No. Woo knows no bounds; he's just warming up with this variation of gunfight as pie fight with tumblers.

Castor is recovered comatose after a close encounter with a jet engine. But the bomb is still ticking. Someone has to penetrate a prison where Castor's sniveling but beloved brother Pollux (read your mythology) has been shipped, and get into that young man's confidence. Since Archer knows so much, he's the likely candidate. But unfortunately he can't. Why? Because he's Archer. This is where the movie gets really kooky.

Fortunately, it takes itself so lightly you are under no obligation to believe. The characters don't even believe. It seems new medical technology has made it possible to surgically exchange faces, so that Archer can go forth under Troy's, learn where the bomb is and see to its defusing.

A face, of course, isn't just skin; it's also muscles, skull, teeth, all of which are left alone. Moreover, face isn't but a fraction of identity -- what about body language, hand size, finger shape, more intimate measurements, odor, musculature? What about waist? Cage must be a good 34; Travolta's easily busting that big 40. So the whole thing is daffy from the get-go. Still, I love the ricketiness of the conceit. It's so jokey and spoofy, you just get with it on a lark.

Of course the obvious happens, cranking the movie still further into the realm of kooky: Troy recovers, claims the nearest handy face -- Archer's -- murderously escapes and sets out to wreak havoc on the world in the guise of a righteous FBI agent and take over Archer's family life and connubial duties.

As an example of the art of casting, the movie is brilliantly engineered. It allows two major stars to each play the showy villain for a time, and also for each to do an imitation of the other. Travolta must ultimately play Cage playing Travolta, while his brother in fame must play Travolta playing Cage. It's absurd, of course, but such is the filmmaker's magic that it makes rational objection beside the point.

It's kind of amusing to watch the dueling charismatics: Both see Castor as a dancer whose body language suggests complete liberation from any save the most nihilistic adolescent impulses. But Cage works mainly through his eyes: His occasionally bulge with the rapture of madness like blackened deviled eggs. His face lengthens and tilts. He looks like a basset hound on amphetamines.

Travolta, probably a better dancer, is less physical but more into twitchy line readings. He twinkles with evil, his full Force-5 Travoltaness set to the high beam. You feel the radiance of his narcissicism. And when the two confront each other, they have wondrous chemistry together. They're having so much fun you feel their glee all the way to the 50th row.

Yet the movie isn't quite so schematic as a synopsis suggests. Each character, in subtle, surprising ways, learns a little from the impersonation. Castor-as-Sean gets off on the sexual aspects of the masquerade with perpetual good wife Joan Allen, but he seems to develop odd quirks of feeling for the FBI agent's family and seems to confront his murder of their son so many years ago. He's a strangely good father to his new teenage daughter, eschewing the temptation toward which the movie seems to be heading. Meanwhile, himself escaped (bloodily) from the prison, Sean-as-Castor hides in underworld culture, learns poignant lessons about the love of some of them -- notably Gina Gershon -- and the loyalties of the goon set.

But Woo is never far from the next gag. His conceit of the gunfight as gymnastics meet with blood, and of the universe as a soap bubble of fragility about to explode, dominates his consciousness. The film's Armageddon begins with a spinning, diving shootout in a church -- a Woo tradition, complete to the doves floating through the carnage in slow motion -- then transmogrifies into a speedboat race across Los Angeles Harbor and finally ends in a bit of nastiness on the beach with a vagrant harpoon gun.

The script probably read: "Fight, chase, fade to black." That's called moviemaking; it's also called genius.

Face/Off is rated R for extreme violence and profanity.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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