Street Date 7/4/23;
Rated ‘R’ for intense sequences of strong violence, and for strong language.
Stars John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Alessandro Nivola, Gina Gershon, Dominique Swain, Harve Presnell, Margaret Cho, Nick Cassavetes, John Carrol Lynch, CCH Pounder.
The name John Woo conjures up images of rhythmically decelerated violence expressively stretched to its limits. Shell casings chicly beat down against rain-soaked pavement while the gunslinger, mindfully pumping ammo, doesn’t bother to remove the toothpick from his mouth. By the time Hong Kong’s often imitated, never duplicated master of balletic action made the move to Hollywood in 1993, he had pretty much shown us everything he had, only this time his efforts yielded a well-deserved mountain of greenbacks. Hollywood began pitching Woo shortly after the international success of The Killers (1989) made him a cult favorite in the States. Woo, the first Asian filmmaker to direct a mainstream Hollywood picture, was sold to Universal execs by none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme, who hailed him as “the Martin Scorsese of Asia!”
With Hard Target (1993), his first American film, Woo achieved what many thought to be impossible: a vigorously watchable Van Damme movie! Broken Arrow (1996) was a stiff, but a follow-up John Travolta picture, Face/Off (1997), demonstrated that Woo could handle a think-free blockbuster without compromising too much integrity. As delightful as it was to reconnect with the film some 26-years after its initial release, the question remains, was this Blu-ray re-release really necessary?
Woo spent a decade working on American soil. Of the seven films he signed between 1993 and 2003, Face/Off remains artistically unbeaten. Mission: Impossible II was the highest-grossing film of 2000, but Woo has yet to make an American film that is a patch on any of his Hong Kong hits. Oddly, my favorite of the director’s Hong Kong films, Hard Boiled, was his least successful in China. The locals slammed it as too American.
The Face/Off script by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary is constructed around a premise so silly that it makes Magnificent Obsession (1954) — millionaire playboy Rock Hudson studies to become a surgeon so as to restore sight to a woman he accidentally blinded — look like a paragon of plausibility when compared to what Woo and company cooked up.
Released at a time when Nicolas Cage and John Travolta ruled the box office, the biggest appeal was the stars’ and filmmakers’ commitment to making a hard ‘R’-rated movie, no matter how silly a premise they’ve concocted. Castor Troy (Cage) stands positioned on a grassy knoll, sucking down a soft drink and focusing his rifle scope on a nearby carousel. His aim is to take out Sean Archer (Travolta), but his bullet passes through the FBI agent killing his young son. Five minutes into the picture and a child’s corpse kicks off the body count. Six years later the cop and killer reconvene. Before being beaten to a comatose pulp, Troy confesses that he’s planted a bomb capable of spreading biological warfare of biblical proportions across Los Angeles. The only other person aware of the bomb’s whereabouts is Troy’s younger brother (Alessandro Nivola), and his lips are sealed. Archer undergoes an experimental surgical procedure that allows good and bad guys to swap mugs. Troy is kept alive in a vegetative state waiting to be revived at the precise moment the script needed a swift kick in the ass.
Cage playing Travolta playing Cage falls short of Being John Malkovich, but credit the filmmakers for having the courage of their conviction to play it straight, give or take a moment or two of sickening maudlinism. (The running gag of actors face-palming one another as a token of affection lost its charm after the third of what would amount to a dozen or so swipes.) And all things considered, these guys are two of the worst shots in movie history. If you had in your bank account what they spent on expended bullets, you could afford to put a family of 10 through college.
So what’s behind the pressing need for a 2023 pressing? The commentary tracks and special features are the same ones that were minted on Paramount’s 2008 release. Why should this version be different from all other home video copies? This one comes with access to a digital copy. How is this a selling tool? Why would anyone in possession of a Blu-ray, a flat-screen, and their right mind need a digital code to watch a film on their laptop or, even worse, a cell phone? And while we’re doing away with digital copies, why not put an end to Blu-ray/DVD combos? Who is the DVD copy for? Are you going to invite friends that you don’t like over for dinner followed by a screening of an inferior pressing? Last year Kino Lorber announced a 4K restoration and my guess is this is Paramount’s way to milk every last cent out of the title before it becomes obsolete. Sit tight. Kino Lorber is poised to cast the film in a different light that’s bound to be brighter than Paramount’s dingy face-lift.