You can't talk about Hong Kong action flicks without discussing the contributions of legendary director John Woo. Cult classics like 'A Better Tomorrow,' 'The Killer' and 'Hard Boiled' transformed the blunt conventions of Asian shooters into violent ballets of death and destruction, making Woo a cultural phenomenon who eventually attracted the attention of Hollywood. Although his first two US actioners ('Hard Target' and 'Broken Arrow') would suffer at the hands of overbearing studio execs, Woo finally made his mark on Western cinema with 1997's 'Face/Off.'
When FBI antiterrorism agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) takes down his nemesis Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), he has reason to celebrate. Years ago, Troy killed the agent's young son during an assassination attempt on Archer's life. But even in a coma, Troy remains a grave threat, as the terrorist recently armed a massive explosive in an unknown location that threatens to kill thousands if detonated. Archer seems to be out of options until a secret government surgical procedure allows him to literally switch faces, voices, and identities with Troy. Everything seems to be going well until Troy comes out of his coma, forces the medical staff to give him Archer's face, and kills everyone with any knowledge of Archer's undercover operation. Before long, Archer is forced to become the head of a criminal organization, while Troy embraces his new job as leader of the FBI counterterrorism task force.
From the moment 'Face/Off' rolls out its bizarre setup, its clear that this is a film that requires its audience to suspend its disbelief in a big way. Indeed, the film's plot holes and contrivances would seem to threaten to derail the entire experience if taken at face value (pardon the pun). But like a tale from classic Greek mythology, the story in 'Face/Off' utilizes a strange series of unlikely events to explore the psyche and the human condition. It doesn't concern itself with logic and neither should its audience.
In a departure from most Western action flicks, Woo doesn't use his character beats simply as an excuse to get from one action scene to the next. Instead, they're part of a carefully constructed exploration of the mental and psychological states of two men pushed to the extreme.
Travolta and Cage are both arguably at the top of their game. Instead of being limited to one character, they're given the opportunity to play two completely different men on opposite ends of the moral spectrum. It's easy to see that each actor studied the other as their performances are layered with the other actor's ticks, gestures, and speech patterns. But it's more than mere mimicry -- Cage really inhabits the inner torture Travolta establishes in Archer, while Travolta unleashes the wild child Cage creates in his eccentric take on Troy.
The action showcases Woo in top form as well. Bullets tear through the environment and explosions create rainstorms of debris. Woo has an amazing eye for cinematic composition and nearly every frame of film is a movie poster in the making. His fluid action scenes are molded into a heightened reality that somehow enhance the momentum of the story. By the same token, quiet character-driven scenes contain an authentic emotional core that makes them as exciting and intriguing as the film's more chaotic moments.
'Face/Off' is one of the most unique action films of the '90s -- it abandons convention and embraces John Woo's signature style without compromise. Fans of modern actioners may not be as wowed as audiences were back in 1997 (since the new wave of genre blockbusters have blatantly cribbed from Woo's playbook), but nearly every viewer is likely to find something to love in this wonderfully complex film.
'Face/Off' arrives on HD DVD with a 1080p/VC-1 transfer that delivers everything fans have wanted and more. Colors are vibrant, black levels are deep, and contrast is perfectly balanced -- the previously-released DVD looks like an aging VHS tape by comparison. There's a convincing illusion of depth and I found myself noting background details for the first time since I saw the film in theaters. I didn't catch any artifacting or crush issues and I was pleased to see that Woo's quick camera never took a toll on the smooth and stable image. Facial textures, on-screen text, and the sparks in the high-rise gun battle are crisply rendered without a hint of pixelation. Best of all, fire and explosions are invigorating, splashing the screen with color and life. By the time I noted the individual feathers on the director's trademark slow-motion doves, I was convinced this transfer was something special.
There are some minor issues worth mentioning. First off, I noticed some noise in darker scenes, as well as a trace amount of edge enhancement in a few shots. The effect isn't entirely obvious, but viewers with larger screens will likely spot it. I also have to gripe for a second about the seams revealed by this high-def transfer, as wires, stunt doubles, and squib packs are more painfully obvious than ever before. Although these hiccups can't be blamed on the video transfer, they're still worth noting for newcomers who aren't familiar with the film's more amusing on-screen flubs. Even so, 'Face/Off' shows how amazing a catalog title can look in high definition. Simply put, I can't imagine this film looking any better.
Believe it or not, the audio package is even stronger than the video transfer. 'Face/Off' features a bombastic DTS ES 6.1 surround track (1.5 Mbps) and a confident Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix (1.5 Mbps), neither of which disappoint. While the additional channel in the DTS track makes rear pans more transparent, it didn't enhance the experience enough to praise one over the other after some volume matching.
Both tracks use intense dynamics to augment the on-screen insanity -- bass tones are particularly impressive and regularly sent rumbles and pulses stampeding through my home theater. LFE support hits with a palpable punch and gunfire is appropriately blaring. Likewise, treble whines are reliable, solid, and crisp. I could hear the heavy breathing of nervous background characters, the varied tip tap of footsteps on an assortment of flooring, and each tinkle of falling glass. The sound designers clearly worked overtime on this one and both the DTS and DD tracks showcase their efforts.
'Face/Off' isn't a quiet movie by any stretch of the imagination, but I was happy to find that the chaotic soundscape never muffled important lines or key effects. More importantly, the soundfield genuinely transports the listener into the film. Directionality is amazing and sounds whiz and streak between the channels naturally. I can't praise these tracks enough -- these aren't just impressive catalog mixes, they go toe-to-toe with the top tier tracks available on HD DVD.
Although 'Face/Off' had languished on DVD for years without any significant supplements, in September of this year Paramount finally issued a Special Collector's Edition DVD chock full of extras. Thankfully the studio has ported them all over to this 2-disc HD DVD, presenting them here in full high definition.
Your enjoyment of 'Face/Off' will ultimately come down to how easily you can overlook its occasionally outlandish plot. Thankfully, this HD DVD release doesn't require any technical leaps of faith. It includes an excellent video transfer, a set of powerful audio tracks, and a healthy collection of supplements. This is a noteworthy treatment of a classic catalog actioner that's sure to make fans extremely happy.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.