Face/Off [1997]

At his best, director John Woo turns action movies into ballets of blood and bullets grounded in character drama. Face/Off marks Woo's first American film to reach the pitched level of his best Hong Kong work (Hard-Boiled). He takes a patently absurd premise--hero and villain exchange identities by literally swapping faces in science-fiction plastic surgery--and creates a double-barreled revenge film driven by the split psyches of its newly redefined characters. FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) must play the villain to move through the underworld while psychotic terrorist Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) becomes a perversely paternal family man while using every tool at his disposal to destroy his nemesis. Travolta vamps Cage's tics and flamboyant excess with the grace of a dancer after his transformation from cop to criminal, while Cage plays the sullen, bottled-up agent excruciatingly trapped behind the face of the man who killed his son. His attempts to live up to the terrorist's reputation become cathartic explosions of violence that both thrill and terrify him. This is merely icing on the cake for action fans, the dramatic backbone for some of the most visceral action thrills ever. Woo fills the screen with one show-stopping set piece after another, bringing a poetic grace to the action freakout with sweeping camerawork and sophisticated editing. This marriage of melodrama and mayhem ups the ante from cops-and-robbers clich├ęs to a conflict of near-mythic levels. --Sean Axmaker

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