Tag: John Woo

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.

Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)

Tom Cruise joins forces with his ego to take on Mission: Impossible 2

Director: John Woo

Cast: Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Thandie Newton (Nyah Nordoff-Hall), Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell), Dougray Scott (Sean Ambrose), Brendan Gleeson (John C McCloy), Anthony Hopkins (Mission Commander Swanbeck), Richard Roxburgh (Hugh Stamp), John Polson (Billy Baird), Radé Sherbedgia (Dr Nekhorvich), William Mapother (Wallis), Dominic Purcell (Ulrich)

Okay. I love this franchise. Always have. But every franchise has its misfire right? Its Phantom Menace? Ladies and gentlemen: welcome to this total turkey. Can you believe this was the biggest box office hit of 2000? Has anyone watched it since then? Did anyone like it even then?

Anyway, the plot for what it’s worth, plays like Hitchcock’s Notorious if it had been roughly humped after a drunken dinner by The Fast and the Furious. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has to recruit the bizarrely named Nyah Nordeff-Hall (Thandie Newton), a society catburgler and sort of hot Raffles. Why? Well of course her ex-boyfriend and rogue MIF agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) has pinched a deadly virus and we need her to get back into his bed and trust to find out more so MIF can pinch it back before it hits the market. She’ll be ready to deceive a man though because “she’s a woman, she has all the training she needs” – or so says Anthony Hopkins’ half-asleep Mission Commander. 

Mission: Impossible 2barely has a plot though. Rarely has a film looked more like a story loosely written around some pre-determined action set-pieces. Much as I like Tom Cruise, no film looks more like a cocky vanity project than this one. The camera lingers on Cruise’s chiselled torso and general macho physicality like a lovestruck teenager. Remember when the MIF was a team organisation? Not anymore. Cruise is now a one man army, who barely needs the help of his two sidekicks (the job of one is to press keys on a computer, the other flies a helicopter. That’s it).

So the whole film is about making Cruise look good. From punching, to climbing freestyle up a cliff, to flashing the famous grin, to driving cars and bikes really fast, the whole film is blinded by his smile. Poor Thandie Newton and Dougray Scott can only watch as the Cruiser bestrides the film like a colossus, creeping about to find themselves dishonourable graves. Both performers are crushed by the weight of Cruise’s ego and the film’s front-and-centering of it. Newton can barely raise her performance above balsawood. Poor Dougray Scott not only gives an utterly bland performance, but was stuck on the set for so long by production delays he had to pull out of the first X-Men film, giving his role of Wolverine to an unknown West End actor by the name of Hugh Jackman. Ouch.

Perhaps as a reaction to the first film being seen as too confusing (it really isn’t…) the plot is almost laughably simple, verging on pointless. The film homages (rips off) other, way, way better films everywhere you look. So we get flirting-through-racing-fast-cars from GoldenEye. We get the almost the whole plot of Notorious with the woman sent to spy on her former lover by a handler who is now in love with her (the film even has an extended racecourse sequence). “I will find you” Cruise bellows at Nyah at one point like a low rent Last of the Mohicans. It doesn’t help that the film sounds like the writers spent about five minutes on the dialogue: “Damn you’re beautiful” Cruise tells Nyah. Well, be still my beating heart. This shit was penned by the writer of Chinatown for fuck’s sake.

The slight plot could probably be comfortably wrapped up in about an hour, if it wasn’t for the film’s constant (embarrassing) use of slow motion at every conceivable opportunity. I guess it’s meant to add style and depth, but it’s actually crushingly annoying and often gives us laughable moments (none more so than Cruise walking past a flaming doorway in slow motion for no reason). You just want to tell the film to get a bloody move on.

But then that is part of the John Woo style. Hard to believe this style of shooting an action film was once considered cool beyond belief. It looks so pretentiously, artily, self-importantly, thuddingly dull now. There are a huge number of action scenes here but none of them are particularly exciting, and none of them hugely memorable. There is a bit with a bike, a bit with cars, a shoot-out in a base, an infiltration of a big building. Yawn. Perhaps because Ethan Hunt feels less like a human, more like an empathy-free, ego-mad super soldier, it’s hard to care. In every other film, time is invested to make him appear human – here he’s an asshole who forces a woman to give her body for secrets, grins like a lunatic and slaughters people left, right and centre. It’s like he’s been given an arsehole upgrade from the first film (the third film would correct all this). 

The film has no humour whatsoever. It’s po-faced and serious and desperately in love with itself. I keep banging on Cruise, but I think I do blame him. Other than Hopkins, no one in the film can compete with his charisma which feels like a deliberate choice. Every single memorable thing in the film is done by him. No other character is allowed to contribute anything to the resolution of the problem. On top of that every character seems to have a Tom Cruise mask – meaning Tom also gets to play at least three other characters as well. 

John Woo shoots all this with a tedious flashiness that is completely empty. Logic is left lying battered and bruised on the sidewalk. By the time we get to the final resolution, we are desperate for Nyah (who has been used for sex, humiliated and infected with a deadly virus) to tell Cruise to get stuffed. Instead (after watching him gun down a pliant Sean Ambrose, who is never allowed to appear as a worthy adversary) they go on a sun dappled date in Sydney, with Cruise all but turning to the camera to wink. “Don’t you wish you were me?” he seems to be saying. Christ I really don’t.