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J. Johnson’s Review: ‘Face/Off’ (1997)

FBI agent Sean Archer has been working non-stop to catch Castor Troy, the man who murdered his son. But after catching Troy, Archer must be surgically altered to look exactly like him in order to foil a bombing plot. But when Troy escapes and assumes Archer’s identity will Archer become Troy?

John Travolta (Archer/Troy), Nicolas Cage (Troy/Archer), Joan Allen (Eve), Alessandro Nivola (Pollux Troy), Gina Gershon (Sasha), Dominique Swain (Jamie), Nick Cassavetes (Dietrich), Harve Presnell (Lazarro), Colm Feore (Walsh).

As you would expect with this cast, acting is very well done. Travolta and Cage both did an excellent job of impersonating one another, along with delivering their usual solid performances. Allen fit well in her role and added nicely, as did Novola who was perfectly cast. Gershon was another highlight, along with Cassavetes and both did nicely.

Face Off begins well with some good character background and plot setup. From there the film smoothly transitions to a crime action film with a steadily increasing pace. Toss in some twists and the storyline is at once confusing and while making complete sense. As tension builds the plot moves back to an action adventure position and achieves warp speed through the well done climax.

The movie is above all an action thriller. John Woo, whose previous American films include “Broken Arrow” with Travolta, likes spectacular stunts in unlikely settings, and the movie includes chases involving an airplane (which crashes into a hangar) and speedboats (which crash into piers and each other). There also are weird settings, including the high-security prison where the inmates wear magnetized boots that allow security to keep track of every footstep.

The high-tech stuff is flawlessly done, but the intriguing elements of the movie involve the performances. Travolta and Cage do not use dubbed voices, and don’t try to imitate each other’s speaking voices precisely when “occupying” each other’s bodies. Instead, knowing that the sound of a voice is created to some degree by the larynx of his host body, they provide suggestions of each other’s speech and vocal patterns, along with subtle physical characteristics. The movie’s premise is that only the faces change – so each actor also finds ways to suggest that he is not the original inhabitant of his body.

(Troy-as-Archer at one point refers unhappily to Archer’s “ridiculous chin,” and the fact that it’s Travolta playing Cage criticizing Travolta is typical of the spins they put on the situation.) For the Archer character, who begins inside Travolta’s body and then spends most of the movie inside Cage’s, the challenge is to fool a convict brother so suspicious that even when faced with the face of his own brother, he’s cautious. For Troy, it’s even trickier: He goes home to Archer’s family, including his wife (Joan Allen) and confused teenage daughter (Dominique Swain), and has to convince them that he’s the husband and father they know. The wife in particular is surprised by the renewed ardor of a husband whose thoughts, for years, have been on revenge rather than romance. (Meanwhile, Archer as Troy is confronted by Troy’s girlfriend, played by Gina Gershon).

You see what thickets this plot constructs; it’s as if Travolta adds the spin courtesy of Cage’s personality, while Cage mellows in the direction of Travolta. Better to conclude that the two actors, working together, have devised a very entertaining way of being each other while being themselves. Face Off is a unique film that is entertaining and thrilling throughout. With a good plot, nice technical work, and a solid cast this one is well worth watching for action adventure or crime action fans, or even fans of the cast. With plenty of graphic violence, foul language, and mild sexuality save this one for older teens and above.


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