Face/Off (Woo, 1997)

I recently read a quote from an Entertainment Weekly critic lambasting Quentin Tarantino for spending his career making films idolizing and glorifying the cinema he watched as a teenager. The critic went on to say people “tend to overrate the films they loved between the ages of, say, 13 and 20, when they were — how to put this politely? — easy to stimulate.” Wow. I didn’t realize how true this statement really is until I revisited John Woo’s Face/Off, a film I desperately loved at the age of sixteen. Now, in watching the constant barrage of exaggerated exchanges between John Travolta and Nicholas Cage l couldn’t help but realize Face/Off is a marginal action picture at best, entrenched in ill-logic and absurd plot contrivances for the sake of action. Face/Off exceeds even Woo’s own brand of heightened heroic bloodshed due to the fact he’s using Hollywood gloss to sugarcoat the rough and tumble style of his Hong Kong pictures. John Woo, if anything, is a teenage boys wet dream of a director, zeroing in on the stimulation aspect the critic above was describing. Woo’s ballet gun fights, his use of slow motion, and destruction of mise-en-scene, create a wondrous aesthetic which doesn’t require much active thought to absorb. Where The Killer, Hard-Boiled, and his other great Hong Kong films mix that approach with a blurring of character morality, Woo’s Hollywood films don’t allow for such complications. Travolta and Cage, even when they switch faces, just show they can overact and underact according to these rules. Woo’s Hollywood resume isn’t great, and it might be even worse now that his “American masterpiece” (as I once thought it to be) has been defaced. For all it’s technical glory (Woo could do these gun battles in his sleep), Face/Off lacks any tension outside the surface level banter between it’s shifting protagonists. Maybe the fact Travolta and Cage haven’t aged well in Hollywood, and I consider somewhat of a joke nowadays, plays into how disappointed I am. However, this doesn’t excuse Woo’s blatant disregard for coherance of story in the face of big budget gadgetry. Such a talented director from Hong Kong did indeed lose his magic crossing the Pacific Ocean, and it’s sad for this teenager at heart to finally admit it.


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