Skip to main content

Lies, deceit, mixed messages... this is turning into a real marriage.


Face/Off
(1997)

John Woo’s hyperbolic pairing of John Travolta and Nicolas Cage is generally regarded as the best of the director’s Hollywood ventures. It probably is, but it suffers from the same tonal extravagance as his lesser US efforts. The pleasures, such as they are, revolve around two heavyweight stars hamming it up with gusto, rather than action fireworks so pumped up with off-putting trademark Woo slow motion and jarring edits that they fail to impress.

I’m not quite sure why his US ventures have been so disappointing. Is it the clash of studios with a director who just wants to do his thing? Or the problems that arise when a director is unable to marry his approach with someone else’s script? Face/Off is, in parts, replete with a strong sense of humour. But Woo’s shooting style pushes every melodramatic element to the point of parody. His operatic visuals make each sequence play like it’s the climax to the film, and so defuse the natural rhythms of the script. Occasionally a face-off is effective, but by this point in his career the expected choreographic flourishes dictate the approach and too often they just doesn’t serve the material. By the time we reach the climactic speedboat chase, it’s an action sequence too far. Without the lure of individuals caught in gunplay, Woo is going through the motions; it becomes a distancing spectacle of obvious stunt doubles pursuing unclear objectives.

When a film begins amped up to 10, it requires a finely wrought script and acutely judged direction if is to maintain that level. Face/Off attempts to be as much a domestic satire as an overblown action movie, but Woo pitches every scene at the same level. It’s visually deafening. Part of the problem is that he has no interest in reining in his actors. Nic Cage is a show-off even at his most demur, and I’m generally a fan, but he’s too much here. As Castor Troy he’s a bug-eyed, drug-fuelled, priapic cartoon villain. He crosses over from amusing scenery chewing into plain wearisome. And when he’s Sean Archer he overdoes it again, all doe-eyed sensitivity or OTT fakery of Castor’s mannerisms. Travolta has quite a bit of fun as Troy, and there are some amusing lines about his love handles and chin, but it’s not so much playing someone else as Travolta doing his standard villain type.

While the scenes of Troy infiltrating Archer’s home and family are the best ones, they’re never as clever or witty as they need to be. Joan Allen plays it completely straight as Eve Archer, adding a grounding absent elsewhere in the movie. There’s strong support from the likes of Gina Gershon and Alessandro Nivola. But it’s Nick Cassavetes who has the most fun, as one of Troy’s associates. His scenes really work, perhaps because the environment is so heightened at this point in the picture (the characters are wantonly abusing substances).

The argument, reasonable to an extent, might be that if you start with a premise this loopy, and filled with such copious plotholes, the only way to go with it is to emphasise the absurdity (via Woo pyrotechnics). There’s a near-future setting, but surgically removing faces (and not just the faces, every body part requires attention, particularly if Troy is to pass himself off as Archer in the marital bed) is still about as plausible as if the characters had magically swapped consciousnesses. But we’ve seen that, in actual comedy vehicles. You can’t help but conclude, despite the relative entertainment value, that Woo is a poor fit for the material. Rather than embracing empty, muscular action as he does, antoher director might have developed the script’s satirical opportunities.

***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Apostle (2018)
(SPOILERS) Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? Apostle's an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay's finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley's, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List), taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn, and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that's different or original beyond them.

You can’t just outsource your entire life.

Tully (2018)
(SPOILERS) A major twist is revealed in the last fifteen minutes of Tully, one I'll happily admit not to have seen coming, but it says something about the movie that it failed to affect my misgivings over the picture up to that point either way. About the worst thing you can say about a twist is that it leaves you shrugging.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams.

Ridley Scott Ridders Ranked
During the '80s, I anticipated few filmmakers' movies more than Ridley Scott's; those of his fellow xenomorph wrangler James Cameron, perhaps. In both cases, that eagerness for something equalling their early efforts receded as they studiously managed to avoid the heights they had once reached. Cameron's output dropped off a cliff after he won an Oscar. Contrastingly, Scott's surged like never before when his film took home gold. Which at least meant he occasionally delivered something interesting, but sadly, it was mostly quantity over quality. Here are the movies Scott has directed in his career thus far - and with his rate of  productivity, another 25 by the time he's 100 may well be feasible – ranked from worst to best.

Well, you did take advantage of a drunken sailor.

Tomb Raider (2018)
(SPOILERS) There's evidently an appetite out there for a decent Tomb Raider movie, given that the lousy 2001 incarnation was successful enough to spawn a (lousy) sequel, and that this lousier reboot, scarcely conceivably, may have attracted enough bums on seats to do likewise. If we're going to distinguish between order of demerits, we could characterise the Angelina Jolie movies as both pretty bad; Tomb Raider, in contrast, is unforgivably tedious.

If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.

Phantom Thread (2017)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps surprisingly not the lowest grossing of last year's Best Picture Oscar nominees (that was Call Me by Your Name) but certainly the one with the least buzz as a genuine contender, subjected as Phantom Thread was to a range of views from masterpiece (the critics) to drudge (a fair selection of general viewers). The mixed reaction wasn’t so very far from Paul Thomas Anderson's earlier The Master, and one suspects the nomination was more to do with the golden glow of Daniel Day-Lewis in his first role in half a decade (and last ever, if he's to be believed) than mass Academy rapture with the picture. Which is ironic, as the relatively unknown Vicky Krieps steals the film from under him.

This is it. This is the moment of my death.

Fearless (1993)
Hollywood tends to make a hash of any exploration of existential or spiritual themes. The urge towards the simplistic, the treacly or the mawkishly uplifting, without appropriate filtering or insight, usually overpowers even the best intentions. Rarely, a movie comes along that makes good on its potential and then, more than likely, it gets completely ignored. Such a fate befell Fearless, Peter Weir’s plane crash survivor-angst film, despite roundly positive critical notices. For some reason audiences were willing to see a rubgy team turn cannibal in Alive, but this was a turn-off? Yet invariably anyone who has seen Fearless speaks of it in glowing terms, and rightly so.

Weir’s pictures are often thematically rich, more anchored by narrative than those of, say, Terrence Malick but similarly preoccupied with big ideas and their expression. He has a rare grasp of poetry, symbolism and the mythic. Weir also displays an acute grasp of the subjective mind-set, and possesses …

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.