Tag: John Travolta

Face/Off (1997)

Nicolas Cage and John Travolta swop faces (yes really) in Face/Off

Director: John Woo

Cast: John Travolta (FBI Agent Sean Archer), Nicolas Cage (Castor Troy), Joan Allen (Eve Archer), Alessandro Nivola (Pollux Troy), Gina Gershon (Sasha Hassler), Dominique Swain (Jamie Archer), Nick Cassavetes (Dietrich Hassler), Harve Presnell (FBI Director Victor Lazarro), Colm Feore (Dr Malcolm Walsh), John Carroll Lynch (Guard Walton), CCH Pounder (Hollis Miller)

After five years, Sean Archer (John Travolta) has finally caught his nemesis, terrorist-for-hire Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). But, with Castor in a coma, only his brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola) – yup really – knows the location of the deadly bomb they planted in Los Angeles. With Pollux now in prison how can they get him to talk? Well obviously the easiest way is for Archer to undergo extensive, experimental surgery to alter his build, voice and (piece de resistance) have his face removed and replaced with Castor Troy’s. And of course, this should be top secret so no-one knows it happened. Because there is absolutely no chance Castor will wake up from his coma and have Archer’s face placed on his own head is there? But of course. Let the violent mayhem ensue, as Troy/Archer (Travolta) manipulates the FBI for his own ends and Archer/Troy (Cage) battles to reclaim his life and face.

Reading that, it won’t surprise you to hear that Face/Off is a hyper-reality film. Hailing from the 90s, when Hong Kong gun-fu director John Woo was seen as the auteur of action, every single thing is dialled up to eleven. Early in the film Archer is told that the voice-alterer attached to his vocal codes could be dislodged ‘by a violent cough’. Needless to say, it doesn’t shift once during the orgy of intense, balletic violence that follows, no matter how many times Archer/Troy flings himself through the air, guns blazing, or flips backwards to avoid bullets.

Face/Off it’s clear is a very silly film. It works, because it knows it is a very silly film. It dabbles only lightly in the psychological trauma of finding yourself in another body – and in Archer’s case not just any body, but the body of his son’s killer. But it’s less interested in that than in seeing the two actors have immense fun apeing each other’s intonations and mannerisms. Travolta in particular has a whale of a time as the id-like Troy/Archer, campily springing about the stage and good-naturedly mocking his own physique (“This ridiculous chin”), while prancing about with all the wide-eyed, giggling mania Cage has made his own.

In case you hadn’t worked it out in a film where faces can be swopped, nothing feels like it’s happening in the real world. Gun battles defy logic and physics. Archer’s obsessive pursuit of Troy in the film’s opening battle causes a jaw-dropping level of destruction, mayhem and death (in a real world, with his obvious psychological problems, he would have been off the case years ago). But then, he’s so reckless perhaps that’s why people don’t really notice when he’s replaced by Troy.

There are some interesting beats, many of them centred around Troy/Archer’s arrival in the Archer family home where he forms a superficial bond with Archer’s daughter (including saving her from assault from a creepy boyfriend) that, aside from his obvious insanity, perhaps things could be different (and there is a suggestion Troy/Archer plays with the idea of going straight – or at least a corrupt version of it). Joan Allen comes on board to add acting lustre as Archer’s doctor wife, so distant from her husband for years that she needs time to work out he’s been replaced.

But the film’s heart is in the violence. There are five or six action set-pieces that use every weapon in the Woo arsenal. Slow-mo? Check. Operatic grandness? Check. Walking with intent? Check. Diving forward while firing two guns? You betcha. Doves? But of course. Any real sense of logic is thrown out of the window, and really the film at heart is a comedy of two famous actors pretending to be each other, in between jumping at each other, screaming their heads off, practically making gun noises while they point their weapons, like maniac kids.

And, you know what? It works. Sure the entire enterprise feels very much of its time: and Face/Off captures Woo’s style so perfectly (with its huge body-count and reckless disregard for life and property) that he never topped it again. A director who basically could do one thing really well (future films would merely demonstrate his limitations), throwing himself into a film of intense silliness, with big-name stars having a whale of time and action set-pieces that make no real sense but are impressive to watch, he aces it here. Face/Off is an odd classic of its time, ludicrously silly but always choosing to double-down on its intense silliness – to gloriously entertaining effect.

Primary Colors (1998)

John Travolta and Emma Thompson are definitely not the Clintons in Primary Colors

Director: Mike Nichols

Cast: John Travolta (Governor Jack Stanton), Emma Thompson (Susan Stanton), Adrian Lester (Henry Burton), Billy Bob Thornton (Richard Jemmons), Kathy Bates (Libby Holden), Larry Hagman (Governor Fred Picker), Stacy Edwards (Jennifer Rodgers), Maura Tierney (Daisy Green), Diane Ladd (Mamma Stanton), Paul Guilfoyle (Howard Ferguson), Kevin Cooney (Senator Lawrence Harris), Rebecca Walker (March Cunningham), Allison Janney (Miss Walsh), Mykelti Williamson (Dewayne Smith)

In 1998, America was engrossed in what seemed like a never-ending series of scandals around Bill Clinton, with Clinton facing impeachment. The news was filled with Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal catch-ups seemingly non-stop. Surely in the middle of that, a film that charted earlier scandals about Slick Willie would be a hit? Well Primary Colors proved that wrong. A thinly veiled portrait of the Clinton run for the White House, based on a novel written by Joe Klein who followed the Clintons on the campaign, it tanked at the box office. Possibly due to audiences having Clinton-fatigue – but also perhaps because it’s a stodgy, overlong and slightly too pleased-with-itself piece of Hollywood political commentary.

The film sticks pretty close to real-life timelines. John Travolta is Arkansas Governor Jack Stanton (Travolta does a consistent impersonation of Bill Clinton both vocally and physically during the whole film), who’s running for the Democratic Presidential nomination, supported by his (perhaps) smarter, ambitious wife Susan (Emma Thompson, doing a neat embodiment of Hillary without impersonation). Eager young black political operator Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) is recruited to help run the campaign – and finds himself increasingly drawn into the secrets of the Stantons, not least Jack’s persistent infidelities that seem to go hand-in-hand with his empathy and genuine passion for helping people. As scandal builds on scandal, the campaign to run for President becomes ever more unseemly.

Primary Colors asks questions that, to be honest, are pretty familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Hollywood film about politics. We’re presented with a Clinton-Stanton who wants to help America to re-educate itself in a modern world, who weeps with emotion when hearing a man recount his struggles with literacy (a fine cameo from Mykelti Williamson), who wants to rebuild America’s economy and build opportunities for all. And at the same time, he can’t keep it in his pants, is quite happy to dodge as much as possible the consequences of his actions, and is blithely disinterested in the impact his infidelities have on other people. Essentially the film wants to ask: at what point does a man’s personal behaviour and morals start to outweigh his good intentions?

It just takes a long time to ask it. A very long time. Primary Colors is a film that could easily be half an hour shorter, and you would miss very little. It’s a stodgy, overlong, smug drama that takes a gleeful delight in how clever it’s being making a film about the Clintons that-isn’t-about-them. It’s weakened as well by using an overly familiar device of putting a naïve and well-meaning audience surrogate character at its centre. We’ve seen this growth of disillusionment before, but Adrian Lester (in a break out role) fails to make Henry Burton a really interesting character – he’s little more than a cipher that we can project our views onto, and Lester is too reserved an actor to make him a character we can effectively invest in as a person. Instead he becomes a largely passive observer that more interesting characters revolve around.

Those characters being largely the Stantons themselves. John Travolta does a very good impersonation of Clinton, but he offers very little insight into the sort of person Clinton is, his motivations or his feelings. Like the character, the role is all performance and you never get a sense of how genuine his goals are and how much ambition is his main driver. As scandals pile up, Travolta is great at capturing Clinton’s sense of hurt that anyone would question his morals (even as his actions display his fundamental lack of them), but the role is short on depth. 

Emma Thompson gets less to play with as Hillary. In fact, she disappears from the second half of the film, after an affair plotline between her and Lester was cut completely from the film (something that makes certain scenes, where actors are clearly responding to this non-existent plotline, amusing to watch). But she manages to make the role something a little more than impersonation, delivering a whipper-sharp, ambitious woman who has buried her resentments about her husband’s betrayals under a wish to achieve a higher goal.

The rest of the cast deliver decent performances, but the stand-out is Kathy Bates as a long-time Stanton friend turned political fixer, who sees her idealisation of the Stantons turn to bitter disillusionment. Bates at first seems to be delivering another of her custom-made “larger than life” roles, but as the stuff hits the fan she layers it with a real emotional depth and complexity. It’s a caricature role that she turns into something real, a woman who feels genuine pain at seeing her deeply held political convictions and ideals being slowly disregarded by her heroes.

But then we get her point. Don’t we all feel a bit like that when we think back about Bill Clinton? The more we learn about his affairs and sexual scandals – and the more that #MeToo develops our understanding of how powerful men can abuse their power to take advantage of star-struck young women – the less sympathetic he seems. The film too suffers from some really out-of-date views of male sexuality. Billy Bob Thornton’s political fixer exposes himself early on in the film to a female worker, but this is shrugged off as “banter”, as opposed to a criminal offence – and the film largely avoids giving any air time to Stanton’s principal victim, the teenage daughter of a black restauranter whom he may or may not have impregnated. Stanton uses his power to gain sexual favours – one of his earliest acts is casually picking up a gawky English teacher who’s giving him a guided tour of her school (a funny cameo from Allison Janney) – but this is largely categorised as a personal weakness that doesn’t impact his suitability for the Presidency, something that feels more and more uncomfortable.

However, Primary Colors’ real problem is that it is overlong and a little bit too pleased with its intricate reconstruction of semi-true events. Although there are funny lines and decent performances, the film lacks any real zip and it gives no real insight into modern politics (other than perhaps deploring the compromises politicians must make) or the Clintons themselves. Instead it settles for telling us things we already know at great length and making safe but empty points about modern America. Far from exploring a Faustian pact where we accept deep personal failings in politicians because we believe that, overall, they could be a force for good, instead Primary Colors is all about turning shades of grey into obvious clear-cut moral choices.

The General's Daughter (1999)

Probably one of the most subtle moments from Travolta’s appalling star vehicle about rape

Director: Simon West

Cast: John Travolta (Chief Warrant Officer Paul Brenner), Madeleine Stowe (Chief Warrant Officer Sarah Sunhill), James Cromwell (Lt. General Joseph Campbell), Timothy Hutton (Col. William Kent), Leslie Stefanson (Captain Elisabeth Campbell), Clarence Williams III (Col. George Fowler), James Woods (Col. Dr. Robert Moore)

The General’s Daughter is a mundane thriller from the late 1990s, now largely forgotten and quite rightly too. Travolta plays an army Warrant Officer, called in to investigate the rape and murder of the daughter of a decorated Army general (played in his best martinet style by James Cromwell). He works with a female Warrant Officer (Madeleine Stowe) with whom he has Unresolved Sexual Tension. Investigations quickly reveal of course that virtually everyone on the base seems to have had some sort of intimate relationship with the victim.

It’s a pretty straight-forward investigative thriller, but it takes a rather unpleasant leering interest in its victim, with the camera lingering frequently too long on her naked body – even during a rape scene the camera and direction invites the audience to admire the victim’s body: “Sure this is awful, but look ain’t she got great legs!”. Revelations that the victim has a sex dungeon, and indulged in sadomasochistic sex with several people, immediately lead our heroes to state that of course “the circumstances of her death are linked to her life” or words to that effect. In fact, the whole film has a slightly unpleasant air of exploitation about it.

Even more unsettlingly after that, the film-makers strap the fig-leaf of social concern over their film with an end card that mouths platitudes about female soldiers and asks us to pat ourselves on the back about the rise in number of female soldiers and the steps taken to prevent rape occurring in the army again. A bit rich from a film that has taken an ogling fascination in its victim as sexual figure throughout the film.

So let’s be charitable and say its attitudes are a bit dated, and that it does sort of try to say something at the end (however ham-fistedly). It’s still not that good a movie. I’ll give it a point for the fact that I didn’t guess the final killer (though I really should have done), although my wife and I managed to predict pretty much everything else between us. And its attempts to tuttingly wag its finger at the army’s attitude to female soldiers are totally undermined by its pervy aesthetic and grimy, exploitative subject matter.

Travolta throughout aims for cocky maverick but comes across more as a complete cock. His chemistry with Stowe is pretty much zero, which is appropriate as that is the same level of interest I had in their ill-defined past relationship. James Woods phones in another of his quirky wackos, James Cromwell is pretty decent as the General. The best performance probably comes from Clarence Williams III as a hero-worshipping adjutant.

The first twenty minutes of the film are a showpiece for an out-of-shape Travolta to rough up a few suspects and to give him “a very personal motivation” for the case (which almost suggests a guy can’t be expected to care that much about a rape victim unless he had met and flirted with her in advance) – it could effectively be skipped to be honest. The rest of the plot is as basic, half thought-out and mildly tasteless as the film itself. If you wanted to make a film about promoting the rights of women in the army, then this was almost a textbook example of how not to do it.