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.
After defecting to HD DVD at the last minute with Paramount, 'Face/Off' finally arrives on Blu-ray with a fantastic 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that matches the HD DVD's VC-1 encode shot for shot. However, purists will be disturbed to learn it still retains the controversial application of DNR (Digital Noise Reduction) that caused such a stir last year. There are a handful of scenes in which the DNR disrupts skin textures and causes the actors to look a bit waxy, but these brief eyesores are just as distracting as the random grainfield spikes that haunt the film's original source. Please don't misunderstand my position on the issue -- I want studios to present their films as faithfully as possible. However, I don't think the alteration in question is as glaring as some people have suggested.
Regardless of your DNR sensitivity, 'Face/Off' boasts a vibrant palette, deep black levels, and nicely balanced contrast. By comparison, the previously-released DVD looks like an aging VHS tape. Facial textures, on-screen text, and sparks in the high-rise gun battle are crisply rendered without a hint of pixelation. Better still, I didn't catch any artifacting or crush issues -- the director's quick camerawork never took a toll on the smooth and stable image. Fire blasts and explosions are invigorating, splashing the screen with color and life. By the time I took note of the individual feathers on Woo's trademark slow-mo doves, I was a big fan of this catalog effort.
There are some other 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 -- wires, stunt doubles, and squib packs are more 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. Despite these slight issues, I'm exceedingly pleased with the results. Had Paramount foregone its use of DNR, this would be a near-perfect catalog transfer.
Like its HD DVD counterpart, the Blu-ray edition of 'Face/Off' features a bombastic DTS 6.1 surround track that delivers a thoroughly engaging audio experience. However, while the disc also includes a Dolby Digital EX 5.1 mix, it doesn't compare to the DTS track as favorably as the HD DVD DD+ track does. Even after volume matching the tracks on each version, I can't definitely declare a difference (for fear of falling prey to placebo), but the DD track on this new Blu-ray release sounds a tad flat when compared to the other three. Ah well, I leave it to our ever-faithful message boarders to weigh in with their experiences.
Setting the Dolby mix aside, the DTS track relies on 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 henchmen, the varied tip tap of footsteps on the floor, and every shard of falling glass. The sound designers clearly worked overtime on this one and the BD audio package does a fine job of showcasing their talents.
'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 spot on as sounds whiz and streak between the channels naturally. I can't praise the DTS track enough -- it isn't just an impressive catalog mix, it provides stiff competition to a variety of lossless and uncompressed tracks on the market.
Although 'Face/Off' languished on DVD for years without receiving any significant supplemental attention, Paramount loaded its Special Collector's Edition DVD and 2-disc HD DVD full of extras. As expected, the studio has ported each one to this Blu-ray release and presented them in high definition.
Your enjoyment of 'Face/Off' will ultimately come down to how easily you can overlook its occasionally outlandish plot. Thankfully, this Blu-ray release doesn't require any technical leaps of faith. It includes an excellent video transfer (only marred by some pesky DNR), a powerful 6.1 DTS audio track, 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.