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Wearing a Grin

So far, the only ingenious action movie of this mayhem-stuffed, crash-filled summer is Face/Off, directed by the peerless John Woo. It dispenses enough all-out ass-kicking to satisfy the most hormonal adolescent but manages to balance things up with--are you ready for this?--a bracing little essay on human identity. The high-priced, high-talent stars are John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, which should keep the box-office receipts flowing in for a while, and both guys clearly had a ball. Who wouldn't? Thanks to an uncommonly clever plot dreamed up by writers Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, each actor got to play the hero and the villain.

This is the third (and best) American movie directed by the ex-Hong Kong action master, whose daring stylistics and bloody wit have turned his early works, notably A Better Tomorrow (1986) and The Killer (1989), into cult classics on this side of the Pacific. Woo's first Hollywood efforts, the Jean-Claude Van Damme hunt-and-kill vehicle Hard Target and Broken Arrow, featuring Travolta as a nuclear maniac, seemed a little buttoned-up, considering their genre. The no-holds-barred Face/Off is nothing less than wonderful.

Enter Sean Archer (Travolta), a sullen and sour FBI agent who has a major score to settle against a high-living, terminally horny international terrorist named Castor Troy (Cage). Sean's the uptight straight man in the neat suburban house; Castor's the cocky, drug-addled mercenary who doesn't think twice about donning a priest's cassock to plant a bomb in a convention center, then sticking his tongue in a choir girl's ear as he swaggers out of the building.

Perfect candidates for the old switcheroo, wouldn't you say?
Woo and company pull that off through a beautiful conceit. The hotshot cop runs his prey down early in the proceedings, leaves him comatose in a hospital bed and, with a little help from the latest medical technology, literally wears the bad guy's face out of the place in order to complete some unfinished business with Castor Troy's nasty brother Pollux (Allessandro Nivola). Guess what. Castor wakes up and promptly steals Sean's face, which has been left floating in a big petri dish for future reference.

The war between good and evil is thus renewed--complete with all the problems that come with looking at your own worst enemy in the mirror and living his life while struggling to preserve what's left of you. Lon Chaney would probably approve.

Amid this fiendish fun, the ever-explosive Mr. Woo blows away cars, boats, planes, buildings and people in ways the makers of Con Air and Speed 2 have never imagined. He and production designer Neil Spisak have also conjured up one of the scariest, most surreal prisons in movie history: The inmates lumber over steel-grid floors in huge magnetized ski boots; guards stop everyone in their tracks with the flip of a switch. Better yet, there's a bizarre, affecting moment--in the highest Woo style--in which a little boy wanders in slow-motion through carnage and fire and calculated movie madness as if it weren't there, because he's got his Walkman working and doesn't really notice. Only a true innovator could give such a strange scene resonance.

For my money, the deepest pleasures of Face/Off lie in its wry, running joke about the artifice of acting and the nature of human character--the kind of bonus you don't find in the average Sylvester Stallone flick. The prospect of watching good guy and bad guy exchange personalities is compelling in itself, and it's a field day for all the amateur psychiatrists in the house. But without actors as good as Travolta and Cage, it might have fallen flat. As it is, by the time Sean is done with his impersonation of Castor, there's no avoiding the irony that turning himself into a murderous slimeball for a while has actually made the guy a better-rounded person. As for the nights Castor-as-Sean spends in the bed of the ever more suspicious Mrs. Archer (Joan Allen), we can't help thinking that's broadened his perspective, too. "Lies. Distrust. Mixed messages," he sneers. "This is turning into a real marriage."

Dyed-in-the-Woo fans probably won't mind the movie's two-hours-plus length, although it seems exactly one climactic boat chase and one weary endorsement of family values too long. Twenty minutes or so before the credits roll, there's an eye-popping confrontation between the ferocious antagonists in--where else?--a hall of mirrors, which looks and feels like Face/Off's real climax. But in the can-you-top-this world of Hollywood action movies, even the reigning auteur of mayhem apparently feels compelled to go a little further than all the way.

Small complaint. Amid the empty summer clatter of runaway cruise ships, airplanes loaded with unconvincing murderers and more shrieking dinosaurs than the world really needs right now, it's satisfying to behold a movie that can simultaneously have a blast and hold a thought.

Face/Off.
Screenplay by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary. Directed by John Woo. With John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen and Allesandro Nivola.

 
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