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.
As I mentioned at the top of this review, 'Face/Off' was recently released here in the US by Paramount on HD DVD. Although I gave that disc's VC-1 encoded transfer a high rating for its impressively-preserved visuals, some viewers were distracted by the digital noise reduction (DNR) applied to the release, while others have reported that the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode on this Blu-ray import is sharper and more detailed.
Although at first I was unable to a significant difference between the two transfers (which both seem to reveal the same DNR pass), when pausing the two versions of the film in a side-by-side comparison, I did detect a slight (and I stress slight) increase in sharpness on the Blu-ray edition. Having said that, when the film is in motion, I found this slight difference invisible to the naked eye. For the sake of a thorough investigation, I even brought both discs to a friend's house (he has a high-end 1080p projector, all the appropriate players and hookups, and an 92" screen). Even with three other critical videophiles in the room, none of us could discern a perceptible improvement in the Blu-ray edition when the films were in motion. If anything, Disney may have utilized a quick, additional sharpening pass for the Blu-ray transfer, but it doesn't magically fix the DNR application. Grain junkies who didn't appreciate the DNR alteration on the HD DVD seem likely have the same complaint here.
On all other points, this Blu-ray import is a direct match with its domestic HD DVD counterpart. Colors are vibrant, black levels are deep, and contrast is perfectly balanced. There's a convincing illusion of depth and once again I found myself noting background details not visable in the film's previous standard-def DVD release. 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.
There are some minor issues shared by both encodes. 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 spot it. I also have to gripe once again 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, whichever next-gen edition you choose, 'Face/Off' shows how amazing a catalog title can look in high definition. I can't imagine this film looking any better.
The uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround mix on this Blu-ray import edition of 'Face/Off' is quite comparable to the DTS ES 6.1 track on the domestic HD DVD. There are some differences, but the give-and-take ultimately cancel eachother out. While the PCM mix boasts a higher audio bitrate and at first blush sounded stronger, after some volume matching, the DTS track revealed similar qualities. The Blu-ray mix may boast a slight boost in clarity, but it loses some subtlety in rear transparency and immersion with the loss of 6.1 support. In my mind, it all evens out, and whichever way you slice it, the audio on both discs is absolute tour de force.
Like the DTS track on the HD DVD, the Blu-ray PCM mix uses 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 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 the PCM track enough -- it isn't just an impressive catalog mix, it goes toe-to-toe with any of the top tier tracks available on Blu-ray.
(Note that Disney also includes a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track on this Blu-ray import, but I found it didn't quite match up to the boomier Dolby Digital Plus mix on the HD DVD.)
Supplemental content is the one area that this Blu-ray import fails to go toe-to-toe with the domestic HD DVD release. While Paramount issued a 2-disc feature-laden edition (packed with commentaries, featurettes, and more), this Disney import merely includes the theatrical trailer and a pointless, one-minute montage of action shots called "Action Overload." Both of these meager supplements are presented in 480i/p.
Although it lacks the robust supplements package available on the 2-disc domestic HD DVD, this UK Blu-ray edition of 'Face/Off' is otherwise just as strong, boasting an impressive video transfer and an excellent PCM 5.1 audio track. Whether or not it's worth importing ultimately comes down to how highly you weigh supplemental features, but on the bottom line this one definitely delivers.
Thanks to Steve for loaning us the disc!
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.