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EMPIRE ESSAY: Face Off Review

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Sean Archer has been chasing Castor Troy to avenge his son's death by the hands of the psychotic terrorist for six years. Now that he killed Castor, Sean must find a biological bomb by assuming the identity of Castor Troy by taking his face and being brought in prison. But Troy, who awakes from his coma, takes Archer's face in order to take revenge on him. Now, Troy turns Archer's life upside down by assuming his identity. Will Archer break free from his prison and get his face back, or will Tro

★★★★★

Just prior to the UK release of Face/Off, Empire had the pleasure of seeing the film in the company of its director, John Woo. Falling into conversation with the Hong Kong auteur before being ushered into the screening room it seemed fairly uncontentious to say how much Empire was looking forward to watching his latest opus.

"Well, it's not so bad," mused Woo. "At least it better than the last one." Although the director's modesty is admirable there is no doubt that at times it can also be pretty misleading. In fact, Woo's previous movie (the 1996 John Travolta/Christian Slater-starring nuclear thriller Broken Arrow) was by no means disappointing while Face/Off itself is simply terrific. A relentless, funny, heartfelt, stunt-laden package that also showed Woo for the first time being given the leeway to make a film capable of matching his earlier Hong Kong work — two-fisted gunplay, lush religious iconography, Mexican stand-offs, fluttering doves et al.

Not that Face/Off always looked liked the sure-fire action hit that it became. Indeed, its central premise — a cop and a terrorist exchange visages — had less in common with the action genre than with the inexplicable glut of body-swap comedies (Big, Vice Versa, 18 Again!, Like Father, Like Son and so on) that arrived in the late 80s. Moreover, screenwriters Michael Colleary and Mike Werb originally envisioned the film to be a far more sci-fi-orientated enterprise. "The script we had written was set in San Francisco about 100 years into the future," explains Colleary. "It was more tongue-in-cheek too — the trolley cars were run by orang-utans, cigarette-smoking chimpanzees worked as volunteers at the hospital."

Originally written in 1990, the script was first optioned by Joel Silver before falling into the lap of Michael Douglas who, the screenwriters fervently hoped, would star in it alongside Harrison Ford. Instead Douglas signed on as producer with the roles of cop Sean Archer and villain Castor Troy eventually going to Travolta and Cage respectively. By this time Woo had also joined the project and had begun retooling the script to his own satisfaction. It wasn't long before the cigarette-smoking chimpanzees were being shown the proverbial door.

"I suggested the studio take out 95 per cent of the science fiction stuff and make it more of a character-based story," says Woo. "Since we had such great actors, we should let them deliver a great performance. At the same time I changed the story to emphasise the value of the family and the conflict between good and evil." Indeed, there is an emotional charge in Face/Off that is clearly imported from Woo's Hong Kong classics such as The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992). Archer's family, in particular, are far removed from the one-dimensional characters who traditionally populate action movies, thanks in large part to the casting of Joan Allen as Sean's wife. Thus, when Troy hijacks Archer's life — Archer having previously gone undercover as Troy to discover the whereabouts of the supervillian's bomb — there is a palpable sense of loss as the cop finds himself excluded and even abhorred by his loved ones. The situation also provides for a number of hilarious moments, not least when post-transformation Travolta complains to his brother, Alessandro Nivola, about his new looks — a scene that Travolta originally balked at performing.

"He wasn't sure if we were insulting him or not," recalls Colleary. "So we said, 'You're John Travolta saying, 'I can't believe I'm stuck with this ugly face' — when you're one of the most famously handsome movie stars in the world.' Once he understood that that was the joke we kind of tailored it. That's where the line about his "ridiculous chin" came in." Of course, it would be a mistake to consider Face/Off as some sort of tongue-in-cheek, gag-strewn character piece. John Woo is the Mozart Of Mayhem, after all, and the film features carnage aplenty, not least in the opening sequence where an aeroplane crashes spectacularly into a hangar. "In the script it was just the helicopter chasing the plane and then crashing on the tail," says Woo. "I said, 'It's not exciting.' So, in the middle of shooting, I said, 'Let John blow up the engine.' All the producers panicked and said, 'It'll take four days to shoot and go way over budget.' And I said, 'Well, I don't care.'"

Woo's conviction would be fully justified by the finished product. Or, as Nicolas Cage says, "Without tooting my own horn — I think it's a masterpiece."

Face/Off proved not only too be a massive hit but also demonstrated that there was plenty of room in the Hollywood action movie for more than a little bit of Eastern promise.