★★ / ★★★★
Under the leadership of FBI Special Agent Sean Archer (John Travolta), the infamous terrorist named Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) is finally captured. The problem is, word has it that there is a bomb in Los Angeles and it will go off in a few days. Castor has fallen into a coma and his brother, Pollux (Alessandro Nivola), is not cooperating with the authorities. Time is of the essence and Archer is informed that the government has created a new technology that allows for a perfect face transplant.
The plan: Archer will borrow Troy’s face and he will then try to coax information out of Pollux—the exact location of the bomb and when it will go off exactly. The problem: After the complex surgery, Troy, sporting Archer’s face, wakes up from his coma, kills everyone with the knowledge of the operation, and assumes the FBI agent’s identity.
“Face/Off,” written by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, is an over-the-top action film that knows how silly it is and so it is willing to take many risks. It has a highly enjoyable first half, especially in how the pieces are put into place prior to the face transplant, but it is eventually reduced to shoot-‘em-up razzle-dazzle with not much ingenuity in its bones.
Casting Travolta and Cage is smart, but having them play against-type eventually is a stroke of genius. In the beginning, Cage plays the villain with such an electric intensity at times it feels as though we are watching a super villain in a superhero picture. Travolta, on the other hand, plays a good guy at first but he employs enough quirks as not make the character boring. Their charisma never wavers and that is why it is almost always a joy to watch them on screen together especially when they are trading barbs.
Less effective are the action scenes—which is a problem because this is an action picture. Although the editing is proficient and the pacing of each sequence is just right, having the characters shoot guns amidst random explosions becomes a trick that gets old real fast. Because Archer and Troy have such hatred toward one another, it is not unfair to expect for them to engage in hand-to-hand combat. We do get one toward the end but it is far from choreographed in a cathartic and creative way.
Clocking in at two hours and ten minutes, the movie is too long. There are a lot of bits showing Troy, sporting Archer’s face, trying to assume a normal family life and Archer, with Troy’s face, spending time with known criminals, but the jokes are evanescent at best. Instead, these humor-driven scenes take away the suspense and intrigue of two people trying to adapt to their new identities.
Directed by John Woo, “Face/Off” is need of toning up in terms of which scenes are most effective in order to get the message across. The best action movies are so direct, they end up forcing the audience to catch up to whatever is going on. Here, one can step away for a few minutes right after an action scene wraps up and not much is missed.