Wednesday, July 2, 1997

Face/Off

Posted By on Wed, Jul 2, 1997 at 12:00 AM

Now that Britain has returned Hong Kong to China, perhaps we should get in on the giving spirit and return John Woo to Hong Kong. Those who care to remember will recall that Woo came to America riding on the ill wind of Tarantino's film-dweeb adulation. But after all the hoopla and the big talk died down, Woo's stay has proven to be less than auspicious. His first outing was a dreadful mess starring midget strongman Jean-Claude Van Damme. Then there was Broken Arrow, a lifeless dud featuring the undead John Travolta whose career, coincidentally, was resuscitated by Quenty.

Sadly, Woo has dug a fresh grave for Vinnie Barbarino in Face/Off. Who could survive a role like that of Sean Archer, hot FBI agent still riding a bummer six years after his son was murdered in a botched hit by evil terrorist Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage)? Archer's home life is a model of suburban dysfunction, his equally troubled wife and daughter pining for Daddy who can't get Troy off his mind. Finally, after a nail-biting chase at an airport, Archer gets his man. Ah, but there's a problem. Troy has planted a sarin gas bomb somewhere in LA and now that the bum's a vegetable, Archer must infiltrate Troy's associates in the underworld to discover the bomb's location. And what better way to go undercover than taking on the face of Troy?

Fabulous plot, don't you think? It's matched by some of the worst acting in recent memory. While Travolta grinds his teeth and smashes his fists, Cage hams it up at every opportunity that the appalling script gives him. The nadir comes when Troy wakes from his coma, now faceless, and bullies the staff at the clinic into giving him Archer's face that's sitting in a petri dish. Return of the Mummy wasn't half as funny as watching Cage ham it up in the lab. Cage, who fancies himself a badass, thrives on this sort of nonsense. He's already got an Oscar and a Teflon rep, so why not have a good time? Travolta, however, continues to flirt with his old flame, obscurity. He'd best confine himself to Scientology propaganda films like Phenomenon if he wants to work after this.

And director Woo isn't just producing crap. Now he's eating it. The level of unintentional self-parody is shocking. The good and evil doppelgängers, the overwrought choreography of slow-motion, the two-handed gunplay, the hopped-up editing style: Woo has a very shallow bag of tricks and, unfortunately for him, everyone under the sun has been dipping into it. His signature style has become a joke of clichés.

His only recourse is to rip off someone else with an equally shallow repertoire. Unfortunately, that's Tony Scott. Ugh. So the visuals are impossibly glossy and the sound impossibly loud. Every frame glistens with that antiseptic precision of advertising. Even the slightest emotional vibration is writ in 100-point type, thanks to a hyperventilating score that never takes a rest. Not even the flutter of a cape or the striking of a match is free of some sort of gratuitous sonic filigree.

In his Hong Kong films such as The Killer, Woo could get away with mixing gritty action with maudlin, sentimental rubbish. The audiences there don't mind sopping up the tears with a blood-soaked hankie. Here, however, only Quenty's legion of dorks have fallen under Woo's spell. Clearly the time is ripe for a native son to return to the motherland.

John Woo, here's your hat. What's your hurry?

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