John Woo's 1997 Face/Off was only the Hong Kong filmmaker's third American feature, preceded by Hard Target (1993) starring Jean-Claude van Damme and Broken Arrow (1996) starring Christian Slater and John Travolta. Travolta would star again in Woo's third Hollywood effort alongside Nicholas Cage. The film's solid success with critics and at the box-office would move Tom Cruise to hire Woo to helm the second installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise. But that film would prove to be the apex of Woo's success in America: his next two films would draw scant positive reviews and box office receipts. By that time, Woo had traded his inimical style for more overtly transcendent themes of sacrifice and spirituality: Windtalkers heavily embraced both Christian and Native American spirituality and Paycheck (based on a Philip K. Dick story) was more psychologically driven than action-oriented (like his more popular films before that). What made Woo so beloved of fans in America was his highly-stylized and choreographed shoot-outs, which combined intensely transcendent imagery with graphic and excessive violence. Face/Off, perhaps more than any other of his American films, exemplified the John Woo style of filmmaking that seemingly blended the crime genre with the ballet and was a forerunner to the slew of the Hong Kong/kung fu films (such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix), which followed it. This paper will look at Woo's Face/Off and describe what made it an essentially unique film in the Hollywood oeuvre, inspiring a new direction in cinema.
Hong Kong Narrative
Had John Woo not first established the beautifully choreographed, bullet-flying sequences in films like Face/Off, it is possible that the Wachowski-directed sequences that mesmerized audiences afterwards would never have been inspired. Woo's Face/Off ushered in the era of fantastic gunplay coupled with acrobatic skill and nuance. However, this American film was merely an extension of what Woo had already been doing for some time in Hong Kong. Woo had been combining genres since the 80s -- but had always infused his films with his brand of blood, humor and pathos. Woo, in fact, had already staged the famous guns-in-one-another's-faces scene (of Face/Off) in his 1989 The Killer, a film which Gerald Mast (2006) has described as being about two "unusual" professionals, "whose guns almost never run out of bullets" (p. 501). The original title of the film should give some indication of the mind behind it: The original title of The Killer, "literally translated, is A Pair of Blood-Splattering Heroes" (Mast, p. 501). The same title could almost neatly apply to Woo's 1997 Face/Off, in which the hero and the anti-hero literally swap identities (through facial transplant), each getting to play the part of hero and villain -- and, as it is a trademark John Woo film, each is truly "blood-splattering."
But then that is what made moviegoers love Face/Off so much: it brought Hong Kong cinema to the American screen. Hong Kong action films were very different from American action films: Again, Mast puts it best when he states that whether they are gritty and gory or sentimental and magical, whether they are gangster stories or fairy tales or martial arts spectaculars, the films defy the limits of space and time and endurance and even gravity in a realm of impossible wonders where dreams turn real, wounds never kill unless they bear a thematic charge, 'perpetual-motion editing' keeps sorcerers and combatants pin-wheeling and sweeping through the air for minutes on end, spells work, honor matters, style and skill are one, and every action and skill is an expression of good or evil (Mast, p. 500).
The description, of course, applies to Hong Kong cinema -- but also certainly applies to the Hong Kong director's American film Face/Off -- which is a tale of good and evil in which the plausible is traded over for the magical, the laws of physics are traded over for poetry, and symbolism is interwoven into the very fabric of the film itself. Face/Off introduced Western audiences to the concept of the Asian sense of rightness and wrongness and the almost balladic fashion in which the two combat against one another.
Woo's Face/Off is, however, a blend not only of genres but also of cultures: East meets West just as much as kung fu meets cops and robbers, creating John Woo "gun fu," in which macho men fight not with swords, staffs or fists, but with guns and bullets and exercise dexterity and suavity as they do so. It is an interesting blend of two cultures as they each define the warrior's code through action: in Asian cinema it is through style and skill, in Western cinema it is through force and the ability to handle large-scale explosions. Kung fu -- the Asian warrior's code where Good is against Evil -- meets the Wild West, where what is good and what is evil is not always what one thinks it is. And while part of the magic of the warrior's code, is that the fighting is hand-to-hand, suggesting something ancient and noble, like Greek warriors in single combat before an entire army watching to determine the outcome of a nation at war; part of the weirdness of Hollywood action cinema is that it relies so heavily on guns and ammunition: weapons of mass destruction, in other words. As Siu Leung Li (2001) points out, "kung fu itself as a Chinese tradition 'naturally' lends itself to the construction of amour propre and the invention of the Chinese nation. Stallone and Lee's bodies embody different ideologies respectively: Rambo's a construct of Reaganite cold-war rhetoric; Lee's an imagined collective identity against imperialism and colonization" (Li, p. 526). In one sense, Woo's Face/Off is a combination of both Rambo and Dragon -- but in another sense it is also a deeply spiritualized representation of the Western concept of Original Sin.
Original Sin -- as Western theology has traditionally defined it -- was brought into being through the Fall of man: specifically through the fall of Adam. Adam is the name of the villain's son in Face/Off: Castor Troy (played by Nicholas Cage) is a man who has made a living through violence and murder. His arch-nemesis is the law-abiding, decent family man Sean Archer. The names of the characters themselves are highly symbolic: Castor Troy is evocatively close to castor oil (and is named after the losing side of the famous Greek battle poetically recorded by Homer), and Sean Archer draws to mind the image of an eagle-eyed godlike person on Mt. Olympus. The latter embodies nobility while the former embodies all that is wicked and corrupt. They are dichotomies, and Woo's storytelling throughout the film attempts to explore the themes of redemption.
Archer, for example, is married to a woman named Eve. And after Archer becomes trapped in the face of Troy, he is compelled to enlist the aid of the Troy's henchmen in order to bring Troy (who is now running around in the face of Archer) to justice. In an effort to do so, he bonds with Troy's son, who is being raised by a mother attempting to shield the boy from the evil ways of his father: the boy's name is Adam, and in the end, he will be adopted by Archer and Eve, thus bringing the biblical story to a kind of redemptive close, restoring the ancient narrative to its proper whole -- but also promising a reward of goodness, because that union is once again being allowed to grow under the protective wing of goodness and virtue.
However, it is neither Christian allegory nor "gun fu" that makes Face/Off work so well. Most of the charm of the film is carried by its two stars, Cage and Travolta, each being given the opportunity to revel in the spotlight of both good and evil -- and each exploring both sides with utter abandon. The acting in the film is as exceptional as the shoot-outs, which are edited so seamlessly and fluidly (and shot always to emphasize the dualistic nature of the drama) that one gives himself up wholly to the finely-tuned spectacle of the scene, as though one were watching not a film, but a dance on stage.
Still, it is the serious playfulness with which the plot devices are introduced that helps the film move with aplomb. Never stopping long enough to take itself too seriously, and never skipping details big enough to make the audience laugh at its pretension, Face/Off navigates the world of the magical and the absurd dexterously -- and the actors are what help Woo keep a handle on the script. The film is, after all, a balancing act between good and evil -- both literally and symbolically. The nature of the drama is what helps keep the film from tilting too far to one side or another -- either to action-violence without purpose or slapstick narrative without seriousness. The film is, above all, a representation of a world…