We ask a lot of action movies these days. Explosions, first of all—those are non-negotiable. Balletically choreographed fight scenes, definitely. Winking jokes, a general sense of whimsy, unapologetic violence—almost always. But that’s not enough, anymore. Today’s audiences, being a sophisticated and jaded sort, expect ambitious approaches to action as a genre and, really, as an ideology: We want action that is also art. Narratives with literary nuance. Heroes who double—maybe! ambiguously!—as anti-heroes. Villains who are evil but also so very complicated in their villainy. Plots that, like cinematic parfaits, are intentionally layered, and that have in the layering something to say, by turns, about recurrent bloodshed and life under terrorism and the trolley problem and the purpose-driven life and The Way We Live Now.
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It’s wonderful, definitely, all this literary aspiration. It helps to make heroes cinematically interesting and narratively compelling. But all this meaning-layering can also be, for the viewer, exhausting. There’s so much to think about, when you see a movie today. So much to analyze. Even—and, now, especially—when the production you’re watching involves a guy who saves the world while clad in a colorful pair of exo-underwear.
I mention all that because of Face/Off, the John Woo movie that turns 20 years old this week and that remains, despite the many action films that have followed it, a reasonable contender in the crowded contest for the Best Action Movie of All Time. Face/Off is not, in the literary way, artful. It is great for precisely none of the reasons that a 21st-century action flick might be called “great.” Its characters are cartoonishly flat; its story is patently absurd; its writing, and indeed the general attitude it adopts toward the English language as an institution, pays preemptive homage to the Bravo school of “unscripted” dramas. “The clock is ticking and so is the bomb,” one character informs another, to set the stage for the events that will unfold in the film, and the line is exceedingly stupid and entirely straightforward and, in that, absolutely perfect.
The plot of Face/Off goes like this: Sean Archer (John Travolta), do-gooder and FBI agent, has spent much of his career following the nefarious workings of the terrorist-for-hire Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). Just after Castor and his brother (Pollux, natch) plant a bomb somewhere in Los Angeles, set to detonate at a time between “now” and “very soon,” the FBI raids them and their gang—with the resulting firefight putting Castor in a coma. With Pollux in prison, there’s only one way for Archer to determine the location of the bomb—the clock is ticking—before it does its worst: Archer must, yes, pretend to be Castor. Enter the experimental surgery in which Castor’s face, yes, comes off.
But then—twist! Or, well, another one! Castor, defying the expectations of the medical establishment, wakes up from his coma! And then he forces the doctor who did the original face transplant to graft Archer’s face—floating, by then, in some unnamed liquid, to be reclaimed …
Source:: <a href=https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/06/faceoff-is-20-years-old/530328/?utm_source=feed target="_blank" title="Face/Off Is 20 Years Old” >The Atlantic – Culture