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HD DVD Review: Face-Off

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Aside from a few ridiculous plot points, Face/Off is a rousing big budget actioner from John Woo. Quickly following another John Travolta action epic, Broken Arrow, Face/Off is  famous for its concept and three extensive run-and-gun scenes that are necessity for any fan of the genre. This is a close but not quite classic popcorn effort.

Travolta and Nicolas Cage face off without any bad puns pertaining to the title as detective and terrorist respectively. A personal vendetta is the fuel for every overdone, spark-filled battle to follow. Typical John Woo slow motion makes even the simple task of handing over some money stylish, and when used with bullets flying, you’ll rarely forget any of the camera angles.

What separates Face/Off from any number of standard cop versus bad guy shoot-em-ups is that the characters swap faces. Cage becomes Sean Archer who was initially Travolta’s character while Travolta takes on the role of flamboyant psychopath Castor Troy. It’s obvious the two leads are having a blast here playing dual roles, though Cage has a tougher transformation to make. Travolta never gets the chance to go all out as his co-star does.

Face/Off is a rather long movie at 140 minutes, and those who want all-out action will be disappointed by a stretch after the opening attack against an airliner. It’s nearly an hour before things pick back up as the exposition and explanation as to how all of this works take up screen time. If you can buy into the face swapping, it’s still hard to swallow the family aspects. Archer’s family hardly questions their radically altered father and husband. They simply accept that his demeanor has changed and go along with it. The same goes for his co-workers.

A few missed opportunities are also disappointing. With Travolta playing Archer, he’s forced to visit Archer’s dead son whom he accidentally killed in the opening scene. The chance for some emotion or deeper character development is missed, and the scene flies by far too quickly.

Of course, not many people put this disc in to cry. This is a movie about killing hundreds of faceless characters who are in the midst of a personal vendetta taken to ridiculous levels. It’s great fun.

The final boat chase, loaded with incredible stunt work, pyrotechnics, and excellent editing (though stuntmen are obvious at times), keeps the thrills high, matching the earlier scene with the airliner and helicopter. A third indoor shootout which brings another Woo trademark of a dialogue-driven stare-down between the main characters, is also filled with destruction from every angle.

Those three sequences make Face/Off work even if you don’t buy into the sci-fi aspect of face swapping. Fun performances from the cast don’t hurt either, and Woo’s direction is truly his own. This is a wildly fun late ‘90s flick with enough reasons to watch unless you’re not a fan of over the top, stylized violence.

Face/Off arrives on HD DVD with a mixed transfer, though it’s always high quality. At times, the film goes soft instead of being noticeably sharp and clean. Compression and some minor edge enhancement are evident briefly. It cleans up beautifully though, with rich detail and strong black levels. The print, while showing some minor damage, is remarkably clean with almost zero grain.

Audio fanatics will be distraught that Paramount has left out an uncompressed audio track, though it hard to imagine anyone disliking this DTS 6.1 track (Dolby 5.1 EX is also available). Rear speakers are not only active; they’re loaded with separation when the bullets begin to fly. Explosions can rattle even the most solid foundation. Even minor gunshots bring a decent shot of bass along with them. This is a lively track, and one audiophiles will find themselves putting it in often.

Two commentaries lead the extras on the first disc. John Woo joins writers Mark Werb and Michael Colleary on the first, while the writers handle their own separate track. Seven deleted scenes run around eight minutes, including an alternate ending that was wisely cut.

The Light and the Dark: Making Face/Off is a one hour documentary covering all aspects of the film. Shot entirely in HD, this is an exhaustive look at the film, with little padding. It’s nearly all original footage.

John Woo: A Life in Pictures is a 26-minute look at the director's life as he tells it through an interview. Others who worked on Face/Off also have a few minutes to speak about him and his style. A classic trailer for the movie is the final piece to this solid HD DVD.

It was originally going to be Stallone and Schwarzenegger in the lead roles, though Woo thought better of it. It’s always hard to imagine someone else in a memorable role, but while those two would have been a monumental box office draw, their styles do not fit the characters. Cage and Travolta pair up beautifully here.

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About Matt Paprocki

Matt Paprocki has critiqued home media and video games for 13 years and is the reviews editor for Pulp365.com. His current passion project is the technically minded DoBlu.com. You can read Matt's body of work via his personal WordPress blog, and follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.