When Woo left Hong Kong for Hollywood, many predicted he would become what Michael Bay is today. For all intents and purposes they would have been right, if they hadn't factored in Woo not giving a damn. While his collaborations with Chow Yun-Fat were earnest attempts at spectacle, his Hollywood efforts are more self-parody. By the time Woo entered the American market, every action director had thoroughly replicated his style. What more could he do than take such ridiculousness to its inevitable breaking point?
Thus we have Face/Off.
Face/Off is the John Wooiest of all John Woo films. Hard Target is Woo testing the waters, Mission: Impossible II is more a commentary of action movies as a whole, and Broken Arrow is completely forgettable. Starring two of the worst actors in Hollywood (Nicolas Cage by choice, John Travolta by sheer lack of talent), Face/Off is cinematic Crystal Meth in a market already gluttonous with brain-melting narcotics.
When terrorist-for-hire Castor Troy (Cage) plants a bomb in Los Angeles, government agent Sean Archer (Travolta) must take his face/off and put it on himself in order to discover where the bomb is located. Troy wakes up from his coma to discover his face/off and, of course, puts on Archer's face to fornicate with his wife, excel at his job, and make disturbingly incestuous advances on his daughter.
Just in case the audience is unsure which is the good guy and which is bad, Woo makes sure Castor Troy is really, really, really, really bad. He kills women. He kills children. He's sacrilegious. He's crude. He's vile. He's psychotic. He makes bizarre guttural noises and Tourette's-like outbursts.
Archer, on the other hand, is completely uptight, unlikable, and inadequate. He spends most of his time whining about his dead son and hunting down the killer (who happens to be Castor Troy). The only way he can express love is to slide his disgusting hand across the faces of his family members. Let's hope he didn't sneeze recently.
Disguised as Troy, Archer enters a secret prison where "the Geneva Convention doesn't apply" and Amnesty International is completely unaware, located beyond United States jurisdiction. The prisoners are continually tortured by electroshock treatments and looping nature videos, strapped into massive metal boots which track their movements using magnets. It is, of course, completely ridiculous to assume that such a place would ever exist. Guantanamo Bay has never implemented the use of nature videos.
After Castor Troy steals Archer's face and kills everyone who knew about the operation, Archer makes a daring escape from the prison, only to discover it's located on a massive oil derrick in the middle of the ocean. He jumps into the water, and rather than explain how he swam dozens of miles back to Los Angeles, Woo assumes that no one cares and moves on.
Back on dry land, Archer prepares for the final (dare I say it) face/off with his arch enemy, complete with Mexican standoff, spear gun fight, and speedboat lined with nitroglycerin. Earlier in the film, Archer states that when this is all over, he wants them to burn Castor Troy's face. By the end no faceburning takes place. Chekhov's Face tells us that if you introduce the possibility of faceburning early in a film, you must follow through with said faceburning.
As stated before, Face/Off is pure spectacle. The shotgun is the most powerful weapon in existence, sending its victims flying back several yards. Which, according to Newton's Third Law of Motion, should send the shooter flying backward an equal amount in the opposite direction. At various points, fireworks go off for absolutely no reason. Woo even includes the firework sound effect, just in case you were actually immersing yourself in the film. It's more open to Brechtian analysis than pure popcorn enjoyment.
The action scenes are so numerous and deafeningly pointless it's hard to pay attention. The only time I uncrossed my eyes was during one of the many shootouts when a little boy observes the bloodshed while listening to Olivia Newton-John's rendition of "Over the Rainbow" on his headphones. The child is nearly oblivious to the mayhem, and the song further distances both the child and the audience from the action. People are dying in horrific ways, and though he's completely in the middle of it, he treats it as another form of entertainment, just as the audience has done up to this point.
Though Woo's characters are caricatures, he does have some interesting ways of expressing the muddled duality of good versus evil. Though Archer is "good" and Troy "bad," both have good and bad traits. Archer is honorable but awkward. Troy is charming but insane. When Troy assumes Archer's face, he actually turns good by diffusing the bomb that he himself planted. The only time he ever returns to nefariousness is when Archer escapes. Meanwhile, Archer uses and abuses people in prison for the sake of survival.
Also, when Hyde from That 70s Show puts the moves on his (fake) daughter, Troy kicks the car window in and pummels him senseless. That's pretty awesome.
Like Archer and Troy, Face/Off has its good and bad traits. Once you accept its ridiculousness and distance yourself from the action, the visual vibrancy and technical prowess shines through. Otherwise you're just staring at big sweaty middle aged faces for 140 minutes.
Castor Troy: If I were to send you flowers where would I... wait, let me rephrase. If I were to let you suck my tongue, would you be grateful?Arbitrary ranking system:
Castor Troy: Try terrorism for hire. We'll blow some shit up. It's more fun!
Sean Archer: When this is over, I want you to take this face and burn it.
Pollux Troy: Seeing that face on you makes me afraid my tiramisu might come back up.
Castor Troy: Well think about me! This nose, this hair, this ridiculous chin.
Sean Archer: I'd like to take his face... off!
Sean Archer: Excuse me I have to use the little boy's wee-wee room.
Castor Troy: Dress up like Halloween and ghouls will try to get in your pants.
John Woo comments on our collective desensitization toward violence which he contributed to significantly.
Jim Norton and Patrice O'Neal summarize what's wrong with Face/Off.