After 52 minutes of waiting to recognize John Woo's superior way of marrying style with content, "Face/Off" finally soars. Not as serious as Woo's Hong Kong work about love and integrity paid for by self-sacrifice ("The Killer," "Bullet in the Head"), this Douglas/Reuther-WCG Entertainment-David Permut production succeeds by using a comedic tone as it becomes as messy and complex as human life, with contradictory elements simultaneously taking up the same space. Manifesting his struggle are two fabulous actors (Nicolas Cage and John Travolta), known for having fun, taking risks and creating their own kind of antics onscreen.
To save the world, FBI agent Archer (Travolta) has himself surgically grafted with the face of a comatose enemy, the terrorist Troy (Cage). When Troy (now acted by Travolta) appears "wearing" Archer's face after destroying FBI scientists who know about the switch, the fun begins, and the clean line between good and evil disappears. Troy (Travolta has a terrific time) gleefully uses his FBI powers to do harm yet protects Archer's teenage daughter (Dominique Swain) in two acutely funny scenes. Archer (now played by Cage, who has the more difficult job of displaying warring emotions within his character's mind) protects killers he once hunted, and kills law officers who now threaten his life.
Arguably the best action director in the world, Woo also manages complex emotional content and a deft way with music. Hearing "Over the Rainbow" while seeing a child caught in a shootout underscores the need to protect the young even if the task is impossible. Woo's use of women throughout "Face/Off" is genre-busting and exceptionally good, particularly the smooth trickery of Troy by Archer's wife (Joan Allen). Woo's usual audience-pleasing detals, such as extra shots of a villain reacting to his own demise, here rest with Archer in Cage's guise: Post-op, he first sees himself in Troy's face and goes nuts with regret; at Troy's final moment, Archer can't stop himself from screaming "Die!" Starring John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Gina Gershon and CCH Pounder. Directed by John Woo. Written by Mike Werb & Michael Colleary. Produced by David Permut, Barrie M. Osborne, Terence Chang and Christopher Godsick. A Paramount release. Action. Rated R for intense sequences of strong violence, and for strong language. Running time: 139 min