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…

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

Never mind. You may be losing a carriage, but he’ll be gaining a bomb.

The Avengers 5.13: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station
Continuing a strong mid-season run, Brian Clemens rejigs one of the dissenting (and departing) Roger Marshall's scripts (hence "Brian Sheriff") and follows in the steps of the previous season's The Girl from Auntie by adding a topical-twist title (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum came out a year earlier). If this is one of those stories where you know from the first who's doing what to whom, the actual mechanism for the doing is a strong and engaging one, and it's pepped considerably by a supporting cast including one John Laurie (2.11: Death of a Great Dane, 3.2: Brief for Murder).

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.

I freely chose my response to this absurd world. If given the opportunity, I would have been more vigorous.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
(SPOILERS) I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ‘70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the case, but I ended up wondering if it might not be ideal fodder for retelling as a miniseries.

That living fossil ate my best friend!

The Meg (2018)
(SPOILERS) There’s a good chance that, unless you go in armed with ludicrously high expectations for the degree to which it's going to take the piss out of its premise, you'll have a good time with The Meg. This is unabashedly B-moviemaking, and if a finger of fault can be pointed, it's that director Jon Turteltaub, besides being a strictly functional filmmaker, does nothing to give it any personality beyond employing the services of the Stat. Obviously, though, the mere presence of the gravelly-larynxed one goes a long way to plugging the holes in any leaky vessel.

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018)
(SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless Heat rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but Den of Thieves is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
(SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison.

Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War, Infinity Wars I & II, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok. It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions (Iron Man II), but there are points in Age of Ultron where it becomes distractingly so. …