John Woo has been making the same movie for years. One man against army-sized odds, massive bodycounts, twin handguns, candles, doves, tense three- (maybe four- or even five-) way stand-offs and scene-enhancing slow-mo. Yet nobody appears to have noticed. Techno face-swap thriller Face/Off is very much a case in point. There's a dramatic shootout in a dove-filled, candle-littered church (see The Killer), and a re-run of that impossible gun battle where hero and nemesis reload on opposite sides of a wall, rattle off some quips, then blast their weapons at each other from point blank range through a shattering window. Uncannily, it's just like scenes in A Better Tomorrow 2, Hard Boiled and Hard Target.
But who really cares? For after two Hollywood false starts, and now with Travolta and Cage together in a fantastical, spectacular script, Woo has managed to get everything right. With speedboat chases, explosions and all manner of choreographed devastation, the sheer energy and imagination of Face/Off makes every other action blockbuster this year look so bad it's frankly embarrassing. Speed 2, The Lost World, Batman & Robin, stand up and be counted. We are talking about you.
Tick off all the Wooisms as Travolta and Cage run, jump (firing two guns) and duck (to avoid men firing two guns) their way through two hours of immensely satisfying and stylish violence. A Lear Jet crashes into a hangar and explodes - - in slow-motion and also from five different camera angles. A stuntman leaps from an oil rig, plunging 100 feet into the sea. Sidearm fights unfold with spectacular, gun-twirling mayhem.
Yes we've seen all this before - - but what really makes Face/Off tick, what sells the movie more than anything else, are the dazzling performances from the two leading men.
Travolta, as the vengeful FBI agent Sean Archer, is a short-tempered, but basically fairly normal family man, while Cage's Castor Troy is the opposite - - a highly unbalanced, psychopathic, woman-fondler, with style and money to burn ("If I were to send you flowers, where would I address... wait. Let me rephrase that. If I were to let you suck my tongue, would you be grateful?").
Woo delves deep inside these two characters, fleshing out their backgrounds and pointing out some of their basic mannerisms (Archer runs his hand over the face of a loved one; Troy hams up his lines and ties his brother's shoelaces), so that later on in the feature you can easily identify Cage's character in Travolta and vice versa.
Although they're both very good as themselves, they're even better as each other. Post-operation, Cage becomes the tortured FBI man stuck with his enemy's face, hunted by his own people; while Travolta revels in his new bad man role, shaking off Castor's drug-fuelled lifestyle to live in Archer's house and bed his wife. Unbelievable? Almost certainly. But so convincing are Cage and Travolta in their dual roles, so mesmerising are their performances, that you're swept away by the power of it all.
In their shadows, colleagues Joan Allen, Gina Gershon and Dominique Swain inhabit mere half-characters, while the squads of tooled-up, unnamed extras line up to get shot, blown-up, stabbed, and crushed under falling masonry. Again, it's mostly in slow-motion. Throughout all the operatic anarchy, Woo never allows the pace to flag. Indeed, you're so hooked halfway in that you can't wait to see what he's going to come up with next.
Yes, Face/Off is basically nothing more than a glorified chase movie, but it's one that freewheels from one jaw-dropping scene to another, assaulting your senses with an adrenalin rush of vibrant images and riotous action. It's a breathtaking, awe-inspiring masterpiece. Wait for it. Watch it. And get high on the best action thriller of the year.