About Face

Of masks and men in Face/Off and Men in Black.

Directed by John Woo
A Paramount Pictures release

Men in Black
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
A Columbia Pictures release

A few weeks ago, reviewing Con Air, I ridiculed Nicolas Cage for trading his integrity for a mess of sinews. I take it all back. On the basis of Face/Off, a knockout new thriller by John Woo, I’d say that there isn’t an American actor of Cage’s generation who can touch him. In the double role of Castor Troy, a charged-up terrorist, and Sean Archer, the obsessive agent who finds himself stuck with Castor’s kisser (more on this later), Cage displays not only his trademark exultant goofiness–the sheer bliss he takes in being paid to act weird–but the brooding, near-tragic intensity he brought to Leaving Las Vegas. Plus, he can leap sideways through the air firing pistols with both hands. Take that, Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Cage’s Castor opens the movie by attempting to assassinate Archer (played initially by John Travolta), who is frolicking with his young son on a merry-go-round. One could argue that waiting for the ride to end would have increased Castor’s chances of hitting his target, but there’s no denying the symbolism of blood on a bobbing plastic horsy. As fortune (or formula) would have it, the bullet strikes Archer a few inches from his heart and passes into the boy’s head. After the requisite slow-motion agonies, we see a title that reads “Six Years Later,” and are given to understand that in all that time Archer has not cracked a smile. Driving his team of agents hard to snare his son’s killer, he finally hits pay dirt, sending Castor (after a furious battle on an airstrip) into an irreversible coma and locking up his more cryptic brother, appropriately named Pollux (Alessandro Nivola).

Trouble is, just before his capture, Castor planted a mother of a bomb under downtown Los Angeles, and with Pollux refusing to divulge its location, radical measures are required. If this were Mission: Impossible, Archer would simply don a rubber Castor mask, pump Pollux for the info, and get home in time for supper. But in Face/Off, surgeons must perform a “state-of-the-art morphogenic transplant,” whereby Archer has his face cut off, suspended in a tank, and replaced with the visage of his nemesis, scar- and swelling-free thanks to “new anti-inflammatories.” So, in less time than it takes for one of my razor nicks to heal, the defaced and refaced hero (now played by Cage) troops into a maximum-security prison, where he’s forced to mix it up with nasty cons and guards who relish the sight of inmates beating one another to a pulp. Am I spoiling the plot if I reveal that Castor’s coma isn’t quite as irreversible as had been thought? And that right in the next room, handily enough, floats Archer’s face?

Face/Off is such a blast that at times I forgot I was watching a John Woo movie. I know them’s fighting words. I once got into a cyberbrawl with a fellow who suggested that Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch was especially important because it was a big influence on John Woo. Actually, Woo’s style is part Peckinpah, part Leone, part Japanese yakuza movies, and part nothing. In films like A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989), and Hard-Boiled (1992), he has proven proficient at juggling props and sending hordes of trained Hong Kong stuntmen flying through the air with squibs of blood erupting from their chests. But he’s a careless storyteller, and all the self-conscious, slow-motion, mythopoetic macho posturing can get tedious. His first American movie, Hard Target (1993), lost its impact when it surrendered its splatter for an “R” rating (the director’s rough cut, widely bootlegged, is vastly more satisfying), and his subsequent effort, Broken Arrow (1996), felt cartoonishly weightless.

B ut I’ve come to recant my Woophobia as well. Forced to adjust his methods–he can’t dollop on the blood, and he doesn’t have armies of stuntmen who will lay their lives on the line–he has become more resourceful. The action in Face/Off is dazzlingly fluid, the link between gun burst and bullet impact shockingly compressed, so that objects seem to explode instantaneously. (The editor is Christian Wagner.) Yes, Woo’s over-familiar pet motif is hauled out: the symbiotic relationship of hunter and hunted, embodied by men with guns pointed, arms at full extension, winding around each other in a distinctly homoerotic pas de deux. This time, however, the Wooisms are reinforced by a crafty script (by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary) that is chock-full of gorgeous symmetries. When Cage and Travolta taunt each other through a two-sided mirror, finally firing into their own reflections, you want to whoop at the bravura.

Above all, Woo has real actors here. Travolta is a more instinctive performer than Cage, so his characterizations aren’t as layered. His Archer is stolid, and his Castor is less feral, a gloating shark. But Travolta can hold the screen as effortlessly as any man alive, and he lets you taste the pleasure Castor takes in moving undetected through his archenemy’s life, gleefully bedding Archer’s spouse, Eve (Joan Allen), and vanquishing his terrorist rivals with the help of Uncle Sam. Cage, meanwhile, gives the film its emotional anchor–panicked and then sunken, his eyes peering helplessly out from under the mask. He isn’t so impatient anymore to prove himself–everything he does has a delicate balance. Cage knows he can relax and still rock the house.

S o does Tommy Lee Jones, who plays an alien-hunting secret agent in Men in Black with a poker face and a manner that’s wearily matter-of-fact. Jones has seen everything. Emerging from his car, wearing a dark suit, he commands a fugitive creature to shed its human disguise, then holds up an absurd-looking ray gun and announces: “OK, Mikey. Put up your arms and all your flippers.” But Jones is no pushover. When those flippers move a tad too fast, he turns Mikey into gumbo. The violence below the surface is what makes Jones’ deadpan so enlivening.

Men in Black is the smartest, funniest, and best-looking sci-fi comedy since the movies learned to morph. Its premise is that Earth is a way station for wandering extraterrestrials–like the setting of Casablanca, as Jones puts it, “except without the Nazis.” There are 1,500 resident aliens on the planet, “most of them decent enough,” who are discreetly monitored by Division 6, a top-secret government agency nobody knows about (it’s the home of the Men in Black) inhabiting a vast, vented, futuristic headquarters that’s like the TWA terminal at Kennedy airport, only more so. (The bureaucracy is presided over by a brusquely self-satisfied Rip Torn.) Jones, who conducts a tour of the place for his edgy new partner (Will Smith, in his sleek Eddie Murphy mode), holds up a tiny piece of alien technology and says, “Gonna replace the CD soon. Means I’m gonna have to buy The White Album again.”

The director, Barry Sonnenfeld, is a clever man. He has cribbed from Tim Burton (the Beetlejuicey score is by Danny Elfman, the striking sets by Bo Welch), but he has also learned what not to do: The script (based on a comic by Lowell Cunningham) is elegantly shaped, without an extraneous beat, and there’s a generosity toward even the most degenerate beasties from beyond. The principal baddie is a giant cockroach who assumes the form of a farmer, played by Vincent D’Onofrio. Unlike Cage and Travolta in Face/Off, he never quite manages to get his skin to fit properly over his skull. As designed by Rick Baker, each E.T. has his own mode of disguise, from the fetuslike being whose body is encased in an old man’s brain pan to the squidlike creature who dons a dirty raincoat and holds a human head on a pole. The crudeness of that effort made me giggle helplessly. Men in Black and Face/Off give mindless escapism a good name.