Five years ago, Agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) was the target for international criminal Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) who tried to carry out his contract on him by himself. He shot Archer all right, but the bullet passed through him and killed his son, leaving the father bereaved but alive and more determined than ever to hunt down Troy, which leads us to today where he has almost caught up with him. Troy is now trying to blow up part of Los Angeles with a bomb designed by his brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola), but he's not going to get away with it if Archer can help it, and a chase to the death ensues...
Well, not quite to the death as although Archer gets his man, Troy is left in a coma with the location of the bomb still undisclosed - and it's going to go off in ten days or so. Why he couldn't have set it to go off in ten hours and save his cohorts the trouble of waiting around for their reward (we're told all this is for high-paying terrorists) goes unexplained unless, oh, wait, its down to the fact that Archer needed this extended amount of time to track it and disable it. And why would that be? This is due to Pollux (bet he's sorry he was the youngest brother to be lumbered with a name like that) being the only one who knows where it is other than the comatose Troy, and he's keeping schtum.
What to do? How about the most sensible course of action, which is naturally to transplant Troy's face onto Archer's and have him pose as the baddie so that Bo - sorry, Pollux can spill the beans unwittingly? Nobody said this was a reasonable film, and this element of science fiction is merely present to make the two stars swap roles, except they're not because they're still supposedly the same people no matter what face their characters are wearing. It sounds more complicated than it was, which might not have been an entirely good thing, as for all the emoting that the lead actors have to go through, you never buy into this whole agonising psychological turmoil that Archer is meant to be labouring under.
Turmoil which erupts when Troy wakes up without his features and persuades the doctor who performed the secret operation that he really needs Archer's face on his skull. The themes of identity are nothing that were not done far better in Les Yeux Sans Visage, which leaves director John Woo to dazzle us with his frenetic action and gunplay, which only goes so far in these ponderous surroundings. Troy, now looking like Archer, bumps off everyone who knew about the switch, so the undercover agent is stranded in prison as meanwhile his rival pretends to have discovered the bomb and subesquently defuses it. Now Troy-as-Archer is a hero, and has only to win back his frosty wife Eve (Joan Allen).
Except that Eve doesn't know, and we do, that her husband is not who he says he is, and Troy's joie de vivre proves irresistable to her in contrast to Archer's moping. Both stars have fun going over the top with the bad guy character, but he's so much of a cartoon that we never feel the resonance Woo appears to believe is right there in the script, and the energy levels drop to sluggish whenever Archer pauses to reflect on the crisis he is suffering through. There were two ways this could have been better, and either was to empahsise one mood over the other, as mixing the over the top with the morose and soulful is not a good match for Face/Off. Add to that the uncomfortable parallels the Travolta role has with the actor's real life loss of his son, and this is never the rollercoaster ride that it could have been, although there are compensations that mean it rarely turns into the all out bore that it threatens to do. Music by John Powell.
One of the most influential directors working in the modern action genre. Hong Kong-born Woo (real name Yusen Wu) spent a decade making production-line martial arts movies for the Shaw Brothers before his melodramatic action thriller A Better Tomorrow (1987) introduced a new style of hyper-realistic, often balletic gun violence.
It also marked Woo's first collaboration with leading man Chow-Yun Fat, who went on to appear in a further three tremendous cop/gangster thrillers for Woo - A Better Tomorrow II, The Killer and Hard Boiled. The success of these films in Hong Kong inspired dozens of similar films, many pretty good, but few with Woo's artistry or emphasis on characters as well as blazing action.
In 1993, Woo moved over to Hollywood, with predictably disappointing results. Face/Off was fun, but the likes of Broken Arrow, Windtalkers and Mission: Impossible 2 too often come across as well-directed, but nevertheless generic, studio product. Needs to work with Chow-Yun Fat again, although his return to Hong Kong with Red Cliff proved there was life in the old dog yet.