April 4, 2018

Face/Off (1997)
Grade: 52/100

Director: John Woo
Stars: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen

What it's about. John Travolta is a top FBI agent who lives in the suburbs with wife Joan Allen and troubled teen daughter Dominique Swain. His nemesis is supercriminal Nicolas Cage, who six years earlier killed Travolta's post-toddler son in an attempted assassination of Travolta. Cage's weird criminal brother is Alessandro Nivola.

Nivola installs a bomb with an 11-day timer that will take out Los Angeles unless demands are met. He is captured in an FBI raid but won't talk. The same raid leaves Cage in a coma. Because it is a movie, Travolta agrees to a face transplant from Cage, and voice chip surgery that will make him sound like Cage. He is placed in the same maximum security prison as Nivola, to have the latter spill the beans about the bomb.

But, because it is a movie, Cage wakes from his coma, forces the doctors to give him Travolta's face, and kills everyone who knows about the surgery. He murders his mettlesome boss (Harve Presnell) at the FBI, and takes over the agency. To become a hero, he defuses the bomb. Meanwhile, he seduces Allen and drools over Swain.

Because it is a movie, Travolta as Cage successfully stages a violent escape from prison, and returns to Los Angeles to hunt down Cage as Travolta. He reunites with drug lord Nick Cassavetes, gun-toting girlfriend Gina Gershon, and her angel-faced preschooler son David McCurley. Several mano-a-mano confrontations follow, with a drawn-out and violent but inevitable conclusion.

How others will see it. Face/Off was expensive to make but earned multiples of its budget at the box office. Both audiences and critics were generally pleased. The film picked up a token Oscar nominations (Best Sound Effects Editing) but did well at the Saturn Awards, picking up trophies for Best Director and Best Writing amid nine nominations.

Today at imdb.com, the film has a huge 309K user votes and a fairly high user rating of 7.3 out of 10. Surprisingly, women grade it slightly higher than do men (was it the happy ending?). Nonetheless, grades decline a bit with advancing age of the viewer, from 7.4 under 30 to 6.9 over 45. A majority of user reviews applaud the movie ("An action classic that will never lose its appeal") though, understandably, naysayers exist ("An insult to intelligence").

How I felt about it. One can imagine the writers and director gathered in a room, and asking the Big Question: How can we make the story even more preposterous? Even the premise is unbelievable. A suspect won't talk, so let's cut the face off of our top FBI agent, put it in a jar, and replace it with the face of a man with a much smaller body frame. No one can tell the difference?

So, the bomb has an 11-day timer. Why so long? But it is hardly long enough for both Travolta and Nicolas Cage to prepare for, and make full recoveries from, devastating plastic surgery. Plus enough time for Cage to enter Federal prison, along with his brother.

I have trouble believing that Nicolas Cage will awake from his coma with an immediate full recovery. One has to wonder: why was he kept alive at all, after his face had been taken from him? How is he able to force the staff to make him look just like John Travolta, then kill everyone who knows about the switch? Or how about Travolta-as-Cage escaping from a maximum security prison, with our "hero" causing the deaths of myriad guards in the process?

This only begins to list all the ridiculous premises and events of the movie. The many times that our leads outrun or duck bullets, which, keep in mind, travel about 1300 feet per second. The action nonsense is bad enough, but are we to believe that an FBI director would be asked by subordinate Margaret Cho, with dozens of top staff present and listening, "Was the stick successfully removed from your ass?"

Since the movie has zero credibility as a drama, it must be strictly regarded as a comedy. Indeed, Cage and Travolta camp it up, and it helps that Cage's girlfriend and Travolta's daughter (respectively, Gina Gershon and Dominique Swain) are hot. If you can make to suspend all disbelief, and realize that a completely happy ending will be contrived despite all likelihood of the contrary, then it becomes an agreeable way to squander two hours plus of your life. Or you can instead watch a much better Nicolas Cage comedy, namely, Raising Arizona. Even John Travolta has made better comedies, such as Look Who's Talking and Get Shorty.