The movie climate has changed much in the last ten years. One of the casualties, some might argue, is the action film – the guy flick (don’t even ask me about the state of science fiction). When was the last time Arnold Schwarzenegger had a hit movie? Granted he’s been away for political reasons, but his brand of action film seems to be lost to modern audiences.
However, whenever traditional action movies like Pathfinder or even Shooter don’t do well, a movie like Jerry Bruckheimer’s National Treasure succeeds, and even more recently Live Free or Die Hard. You could hybridize the genre with a dash of science fiction like Michael Bay did with The Island or you could sprinkle it with a little bit of cartoon nostalgia like Bay did with Transformers.
While Bay still maintains an old school repertoire, he has modernized his directing to reflect the shift toward CGI special effects. Next to Bay, there isn’t a more traditional action film director than John Woo, and sad to say, modern audiences haven’t been too kind to his recent films. He made a World War II movie that should have been a whole lot better given the subject matter (Windtalkers) and a movie adapted from a Philip K. Dick story (Paycheck) that was made about fifteen years too late.
In Woo’s greatest American movie Face/Off, John Travolta and Nicolas Cage play against type (well, eventually) as FBI agent Sean Archer and terrorist Castor Troy, respectively. In trying to kill Archer one day, Troy accidentally kills Archer’s son, which leads the grieving father on a six-year vendetta against Troy. Archer finally captures the terrorist in an exhaustive firefight, but his victory is short-lived when he must find a bomb (or WMD in today’s world) that Troy planted in Los Angeles.
And the only way to save the city is for Archer to take Troy’s identity and fool Troy’s brother Pollux into revealing the bomb’s location. You can probably figure out what happens next.
There’s a surprisingly high level of depth to the movie regarding the theme of the duality of Archer and Troy’s personalities. You can’t blame Troy for what he is. But you can cringe at how Archer let his lust for revenge almost destroy his family. Throughout the movie you see instances of how well these two enemies know each other, and it’s interesting how that proficiency plays so darn well with their respective friends. When Travolta is Archer, Travolta reconnects somewhat to Archer’s wife Eve (Joan Allen) and to Archer’s rebellious daughter Jamie (Dominique Swain). When Cage is Troy, Cage reconnects to Troy’s former girlfriend Sasha (Gina Gershon) and her son Adam.
The film plays a lot on the fuzziness between the two characters being two separate people while also being the same character as well. They each obsessed and consumed themselves into the other, absorbing everything: how the other walks, how the other talks, how the other thinks, and how the other lives. In one of the major action scenes, Archer and Troy duel in a circle of mirrors. As each bullet passes through each mirror, each break symbolizes the idea that the shooter is in a way trying to shoot himself.
It was a very good idea for both Travolta and Cage to play characters opposite of what they’re used to playing. Travolta was a badass in Pulp Fiction, but usually played more sensitive types (see Look Who’s Talking) while Cage was known for playing edgier characters (see Wild At Heart), although at times the experiment hits a bump whenever Cage cries or whenever Travolta acts cool. I know, I’m just not used to it either.
Included on this two-disc special collector’s edition are two feature-length commentaries, one by Woo with writers Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, and one by just the writers. An interesting note behind the opening airport scene is that the original scene had less action for budgetary reasons, but when Woo was brought on board he made it even bigger and more expensive. Werb even uses the word “outrageous” in his description. Studio constraints be damned.
There are seven deleted scenes totaling eight minutes and all of them are unnecessary. One scene extended the conversation between Troy and Pollux in prison, while another extended the “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” montage adding more bullets and more excessive carnage as seen through Adam’s eyes. Another is an alternate ending, which would have ended the movie on a terribly sour note. It would have, however, created a perfect opening for a sequel. I was a little surprised that the scenes looked as good as they did. For older titles, unless scenes are reincorporated into the movie, they usually aren’t remastered in any way.
The main extra is the hour-long “The Light and the Dark: The Making of Face/Off” documentary broken into five parts: Science fiction/Human emotion, Cast/Characters, Woo/Hollywood, Practical/Visual effects, and Future/Past. The documentary itself is very informative with some interesting tidbits about the film’s evolution from story idea to theatrical release.
The film’s inspiration was the film White Heat with James Cagney. It happens to be one of Werb’s favorite films. Out of that, the story morphed into a movie that the writers described as “the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’ in the future.” Luckily as the story matured, it became more contemporary as well. Director Rob Cohen was at one time attached to it, and, he hinted, maybe somewhat influenced the decision to drop the main sci-fi aspect, although the final cut did include some of those themes as in the laboratory and the maximum security prison. Another interesting note is Woo’s struggle with the studio over the theatrical ending regarding the fate of the little boy.
A 30-minute respective (“John Woo: A Life in Pictures”) chronicling John Woo’s life and career is also on the DVD. Like Martin Scorsese, Woo’s interest in the cinema started with his love of musicals. In Woo’s films, the certain way the actors moved was obviously intentional, but I didn’t know the movements were meant to mimic the stylings of the ballet.
Rounding out the DVD are the Face/Off‘s original theatrical trailer and preview trailers for Shooter, Zodiac, and Next. Oh, and did I mention there’s a Dolby DTS 6.1 audio track?