Movie fodder stunts minds and intelligence
Vancouver Courier
July 6, 1997

John Travolta and Nicolas Cage are billed as the stars of the current box-office hit Face/Off, but anyone who has seen the film might beg to differ.

Though the two men do have the most lines in the film, the real stars of Face/Off are its implausible script and director John Woo. This is unfortunate, because Travolta and Cage end up playing second banana to cartoonish violence and gratuitous special effects.

The result is a mess, but a mess that nevertheless tells us something about the poor quality of Hollywood movies, and the general contempt Hollywood has for its audiences.

First, let’s examine what it set out to do. According to the promotional bumf in Premiere magazine, Face/Off is a study of good and evil, and the duality of man. The metaphor is made flesh when Travolta’s FBI agent and Cage’s psychotic killer end up, literally, wearing each other’s faces and having to live the other’s life.

I saw Face/Off on the same weekend I saw Hercules and I’m not sure which was the more cartoonish. Hercules, which was made for children, or Face/Off , which was made for adults with child-like attention spans.

The premise of Face/Off is preposterous. Faces cannot be removed and replaced like Halloween masks. Also, Cage and Travolta have radically different facial structures. Unlike science-fiction movies that allow you to suspend disbelief to enjoy a flight of fancy, Face/Off has an annoying earnestness that begs the audience to accept it at, er… face value.

The makers of Face/Off expect the audience to be moved by its high-falutin’ claim to be an investigation of the dual nature of man, yet they treat the story and its characters almost dismissively.

As an action film Face/Off has it all. People get shot up real good and real often. The good guy (especially Cage as Travolta’s FBI agent in a maximum security hell of a prison) gets beat up real good, too, but manages to emerge without any long-lasting effects. It’s clean and neat and moves along at a good clip. Dialogue and character development are generally perfunctory so as not to slow down the pace.

Finally, there’s a boat chase that’s so spectacular it received an ovation from the press screening audience. Problem is, none of this action has much to do with anything. It exists solely for its own sake and to let Woo, who should never have been allowed near this script, to show off. Yet, take the action out of the movie and you’d have nothing.

Face/Off fails miserably as a drama. The first 20 minutes or so are a laborious lead-up to the inevitable; the middle is too long, and the film could have ended 20 minutes sooner than it did. Joan Allen as the FBI agent’s wife turns in the best performance, but isn’t given enough screen time. For all of the bells and whistles in Face/Off , the simple domestic scenes between Allen and Travolta-as-bad-guy work best. There’s actual acting here, not stereotyped reaction.

As an action picture, though, Face/Off is a moderate success, but by default—it’s a bad movie redeemed, if that’s the right word, by a few entertaining, though irrelevant, adrenaline rushes and copious flourishes of directorial conceit. Is that enough to justify making Face/Off, and does it justify demanding that movie-goers shell out $8 to see it? Apparently so, if gushing reviews and incessant hype are any indication.

Somewhere along the line, Hollywood big shots seem to have convinced themselves that all they need for a successful film are telegenic stars, lots of action, liberal doses of sex and/or violence, copious doses of computer-enhanced reality and a few words here and there to move the plot along.

Sometimes the action formula works, and when it does the audience is treated to a fantastic spectacle. As I watched the exaggerated gunfire in Face/Off , I was reminded of the Oscar-winning special effects in director Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall, a futuristic tale of mind-tampering and confused identity.

Total Recall worked because it was a live-action science-fiction cartoon in which the over-the-top action and violence were consistent with the film. Similarly in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, outstanding computer effects by the Toronto company Pixar (for the liquid metal robot T-1000) made this a landmark special effects show. (Pixar’s effects had more screen time than star Arnold Schwarzenegger.

When special effects and action are integral to the movie they’re enjoyable. When they’re incidental, as in Face/Off, they’re distracting, which raises the question why Face/Off was written the way it was. Even if we can suspend disbelief long enough to buy into the premise of switching faces, the over-the-top action and gunplay did not help the movie. Writers would have been better advised to keep the distractions to a minimum and play up character development. After all, this is supposed to be a study of human behaviour.

Hollywood studios are lazy and unimaginative, so much so that they don’t trust actors to be able to carry a big-budget film. Studio execs see how effective non-human (or stunt) action is, so they find ways to write it into a script. Thus, current wisdom seems to be this: give people great stunts and special effects and they’ll flock like lemmings to the box office and go away happy.

As computer technology grows more sophisticated and attention spans grow shorter, studios churn out films that increasingly demand little from audiences. If a movie doesn’t challenge audiences then it has to entertain them, in the same way that a child has to be “entertained” lest it become restless.

So far, the studios have gambled correctly. Twister, the spectacular disaster movie starring Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton, did well at the box office despite spectacularly disastrous dialogue. Hollywood will continue to churn out lame stories so long as they are sure that enough people will pay to see the action in them.

Let’s hope that North American movie-goers start complaining about the way Hollywood insults their intelligence by voting with their feet. As foreign and independent films come to dominate the Academy and other awards, one hopes that the big studios will finally get the picture.