Face/Off - * * * 1/2*

It is not often that you encounter an action film that can actually challenge its actors (not counting featherbrained musclemen, of course). And it isn’t often that you get strong performances, either. Yet, both of those are true for Face/Off, an action picture that finally pleases the mind as well as the eye.

Sean Archer (John Travolta) is an obsessed man. He has spent six years with an antiterrorism team hunting down the infamous Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). He finally gets his man, but not until Castor has secretly planted a bomb in downtown L.A. The only person who might be able to help Sean find the location of the bomb is Castor’s brother, Pollux (Alessandro Nivola). Unfortunately, Pollux is extremely paranoid, and only confides in his brother.

When it seems Sean has struck a wall, a new twist appears. Off the books, a secret lab has the technology to transplant Castor’s face on Sean’s body, and for all reasonable purposes make Sean Archer a double of the now comatose Castor Troy. Under an oath of secrecy, Sean finally agrees, and sets out to get the information from Pollux. Unfortunately for Sean, Castor Troy awakens, and forces the doctors to graft Sean’s face on his body. Now the two men play a deadly game of cat and mouse, each forced to assume the identity of the man he detests most.

While the setup may seem like a conventional sci-fi action flick, be assured that the film does not stop there. After the identity swap, the film raises up another level. Many high-concept science fiction films stop thinking after the original premise. Face/Off, on the other hand, truly exploits its premise, and leaves no stone unturned.

The central roles must have been hard to refuse. Since each actor, in effect, plays a double role, both get the glory of being the good guy, but the juicy bad guy parts as well. Neither actor does an out-and-out impression of the other, but rather, they seem to capture the nuances of each other’s acting styles: a particular cadence, a stride, etc. It is subtle, rather than overt, but it is noticable, and a testament to the actors’ talents.

Both Travolta and Cage do a superb job, but of the two, Nicolas Cage has the showier role, or perhaps he is simply the better actor. He starts out as the maniacal villain with flair and panache, then transforms into the cop in the terrorists body. As Sean Archer, Cage is a conflicted man. Isolated from those he cares about, he must do things he detests and can’t afford to show it. Cage’s handling of Archer’s inner turmoil is masterly. Travolta, on the other hand, has a slow start as the dour, driven cop. However, when he gets to be the villain in the cop’s body, he’s like a kid in a candy store, full of exuberant glee. He has many showy scenes, and makes a convincing villain.

In the supporting roles, Joan Allen portrays Eve Archer, Sean’s doctor wife. She adds some depth to Sean’s character, though she’s rather slow-to-catch-on. Alessandro Nivola is eerie and effective as Castor’s paranoid brother, and Gina Gershon has a few good moments as Castor’s girlfriend, however the subplot involving her son, while serving a purpose, could have been handled better.

This film is easily director John Woo’s best American film. Famed for his operatic action sequences in his Hong Kong action movies, his earlier American efforts (Hard Target and Broken Arrow) were never able to capture that same sense of awe. With Face/Off, he’s back in top shape, directing the action with flowing dance-like style, and unafraid to let his characters show intelligence or human vulnerabilities.

The film is far from perfect. The film’s science fiction elements are not handled well. At best they merely seem fake, at worst they border on the absurd. They could have, and should have, been handled better. Also, surprisingly, the film has exceptionally bad stunt double casting. It is rather distracting, particularly during some of the stunts in the finale, when you’re jarred by the thought “Hey, that’s not Nicolas Cage…”. Some alternate takes, or some digital touch-ups were desperately needed. Finally, the film has an unnecessary tacked-on ending, that simply shouldn’t be there. The film was smart enough up to that point, it should have had the confidence to rely on the intelligence of the audience.

Still, most of those are minor quibbles, and, especially compared with the other fare available so far this summer, are distracting, but shouldn’t warn you away from this film. There are plenty of excellent action scenes, an actual plot, good performances and dialogue that goes beyond strings of one-liners. What more could you ask for in a summer action movie?

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