Archive for June 1997

Face/Off

June 27, 1997

Face/Off, the third film made in this country by the action master John Woo (Hard Target and Broken Arrow were the others), is a triumph of graceful chaos. Bodies spin and hurtle through the air, shooting or getting shot at — always in rapturous slow motion that recalls the balletic carnage of Sam Peckinpah. Yet Woo also finds another kind of grace: a rich and intense emotional context for the mayhem. The movie is often preposterous but never meaningless.

Woo’s best films (The Killer, Hard Boiled) aren’t just bullet marathons. They’re about loyalty, loss, betrayal, duality. In Face/Off, the two antagonists aiming guns at each other (a classic Woo image) are aiming at their own faces. The premise, by scripters Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, is diabolical: What if you had to wear the face of the man who killed your son? And what if he, in turn, assumed your face and your life, while you were driven into isolation and squalor?

The hero, FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta), has lived for six years in obsessive grief. He can’t rest until he catches the terrorist who killed his little boy — a freaky nihilist named Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), who plans to wipe out L.A. with a bomb. After Troy has been rendered comatose, Archer has his own face removed and replaced by Troy’s, so he can win the trust of Troy’s cohorts and find out where the bomb is. Later, the faceless Troy awakens and plucks Archer’s face out of cold storage so he can take over Archer’s life.

Face/Off is a masterstroke of casting: we get to watch two great, physically inventive actors playing each other. When Travolta is Archer, he’s clenched and burned out; the death of his son has drained all relaxation out of his body. As the happy psycho Troy, Travolta moves like a man who can be relaxed anywhere, in any man’s body, and he does everything — loading a gun, taking off his coat — with a flourish, as if playing to an audience in his head. Here, as in Woo’s Broken Arrow, Travolta makes casual brutality seem like a state of grace.

Cage’s performance follows the exact opposite track. He starts off in full crowd-pleasing mode as Troy, dressed as a priest, squeezing a choir girl’s butt as he sings “Hallelujah!” Yet when Cage becomes the virtuous Archer, he doesn’t get duller — he gets weirder and scarier. He pulls off a magnificent burst of rage when Archer first sees Troy’s face in the mirror. Cage also comes up with a truly bizarre bug-eyed grimace that stylizes Archer’s horror at wearing a face he despises.

The core of Face/Off is how each man adapts to his new family. Troy, in a perverse way, tries to be a good husband and dad to Archer’s wife (Joan Allen) and daughter (Dominique Swain); Archer, who can’t help being decent, baffles Troy’s girlfriend (Gina Gershon) and confronts living proof of Troy’s potential redemption. The dramatic scenes have emotional gravity, while the exhilarating action sequences defy gravity. In Face/Off, as in his other classics, John Woo fuses the masks of comedy and tragedy to give the action genre a new and beautiful face.

Lugosi: Hollywood’s Dracula

June 15, 1997

If you ever enjoyed Bela Lugosi in good movies and bad movies, you owe it to yourself to catch this respectful, brief (55 minutes) documentary that places him in historical context. Did you know that Lugosi, a versatile stage actor in Hungary, once played Jesus in a passion play? Or that he acted in a version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for a pre-Nosferatu F.W. Murnau? Photos of both are here, as well as footage from many ancient silent films Lugosi did before he played the role that would forever define him. The documentary establishes that Lugosi fell from grace not once but twice — he began as a serious actor known for appearing in classic plays or as romantic leads, and then Dracula changed all that; then, once trapped in Hollywood’s conception of him as “the master of menace,” he couldn’t get any other type of work, and when horror went through a dry spell in the ’40s, that meant Lugosi had to take what he could get. It often meant a depressing amount of self-parody.

Writer-director Gary D. Rhodes takes Lugosi right up to the sordid end, a pain-wracked morphine addict pathetically grateful to be a part of Ed Wood’s foolishness, yet the documentary leaves you not with sadness but with respect for a man who only wanted to work. Acting was his passion and his life, and if he had to get dissed by Milton Berle on TV or flail around with a rubber octopus in order to stay in the game, so be it. Narrated by Robert Clarke, with Rue McClanahan reading various gushing movie-mag Lugosi articles of the day. The DVD’s special features include 30 minutes of deleted scenes (technically bringing the documentary to about feature-length) and various Lugosi rarities; it comes with a CD containing some vintage Lugosi radio work.

Speed 2: Cruise Control

June 13, 1997

This is probably as good a time as any to point out that Orson Welles scrounged for budgets all his life, yet studios routinely throw $110 million at crap like Speed 2. (This is also probably the only time you’ll ever see “Orson Welles” and “Speed 2” in the same sentence.) This sequel to the superb, drum-tight 1994 hit Speed is unusually terrible, even by low summer-schlock standards. It’s an insult to everyone who enjoyed the original; I strongly suspect that 20th Century-Fox took an existing Under Siege rip-off script and reworked it as a Speed “sequel.”

Keanu Reeves may have made Feeling Minnesota, but at least he had the sense to pass on this embarrassment. The director, Jan de Bont (the first Speed, Twister), should have followed Keanu’s lead. De Bont is a master of kinetic escapism — dumb but exhilarating, nimble fun. But what made him think he could reproduce the reckless thrill of a speeding bus in a sequel set entirely on a cruise liner? He can’t, and he falls back on circling helicopter shots of the ship, which moves with all the breathtaking speed of a dead sea tortoise while the pounding score keeps telling us we’re seeing incredible velocity.

Among the passengers on the luxury liner are Sandra Bullock, blandly reprising the role that made her America’s darling; Jason Patric (in for Keanu) as Sandy’s new SWAT-cop boyfriend; and, last and surprisingly least, Willem Dafoe in an indifferent performance as a disgruntled computer geek who takes control of the ship. This villain, who has some bizarre disease that requires him to stick leeches to his chest, plans to steal all the passengers’ jewelry — a good metaphor for Dafoe’s mercenary work here: Take the money and run.

Most of the time, we’re watching Sandy and Patric dash around rescuing rich fat-cat passengers we couldn’t care less about; I wanted to see a few of them achieve oneness with the ship’s propellers, but this is a PG-13 movie (unlike its R-rated predecessor), so there isn’t even that sick thrill. There’s a deaf girl who has a crush on Patric (who conveniently knows sign language — nothing comes of this); there’s a cameo by the reggae-rock band UB40, who perform on the ship and then mysteriously vanish — we don’t see them among the evacuees. Did they fall overboard? Did Dafoe feed them to his leeches? Everything builds to a double anti-climax in which the ship just misses impaling an oil tanker, then goes on to plow into a harborside resort. We get 87 shots of everyone in the cast spouting a PG-13 epithet in anticipation of the crash. Imagine — it took two screenwriters to come up with that. The endless collision is as unconvincing as it is boring.

Throughout, Bullock acts vaguely inconvenienced by all the chaos, while Patric is quickly making me forget his mercurial work in Rush. But then this movie isn’t much of a rush for anyone concerned. The original Speed is readily available; check it out again to remind yourself what genuinely inspired action looks like. Perhaps Jan de Bont should have watched it again, too.