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John Woo’s “Face/Off” is Gun-Fu gold on 4K

Updated: Mar 5


4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR SCREENSHOTS

Nicolas Cage plays terrorist Castor Troy and John Travolta as FBI Special Agent Sean Archer. Troy and his gold money clip.


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“FACE/OFF”

 

4K Ultra HD & Blu-ray; 1997; R for strong violence and profanity

 

Best extra: “Commentary by John Woo and writers Mike Werb and Michael Colleary”

 












JOHN WOO, known for his “Gun Fu” action movies such as “The Killer,” “A Better Tomorrow,” “Broken Arrow,” and “Hard Target,” gleefully leaps over the top in Kino Lorber’s beautifully remastered “Face/Off” starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage.

 

The Chinese director, writer and producer has influenced dozens of directors and writers for decades. Fans and critics recognize his style immediately: the dance-like choreography of fight scenes, gun fights, and vehicular chases; the slow-motion bullet; tense, one-on-one standoffs; magical stunts, and two-handed gun play. Cage’s character, terrorist Castor Troy, uses a pair of custom Springfield Armory M1911-A1 pistols. The dragon on the grips is actually made from solid gold and has genuine ruby eyes. We see Woo’s influence in Quentin Tarantino films, including “Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2” and “Pulp Fiction,” and from Robert Rodriguez’s “From Dusk till Dawn” “and “Desperado” – frankly, in nearly every film they’ve made. Then there’s the Wachowski sisters’ “Matrix” and “V for Vendetta,” and, most recently, stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski’s “John Wick” series.

 

Still, it’s not just John Woo’s style, but the man himself – a notably kind, friendly, enthusiastic and persistent man. He knows what he wants and works hard to get it, crediting the staff, crew and actors he works with for their work. See this for yourself in the “Face/Off” bonus features.



(1&2) Castor Troy attempts to assassinate Agent Sean Archer, but the bullet goes through him and kills his son Michael instead. (3) Troy shows off his slimy tendencies when he infiltrates a church. (4) Troy commands his backup thugs at a remote, desert airstrip.

 




“Face/Off” began as a science fiction action film from writers Mike Werb (“The Mask”) and Michael Colleary, both of “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” (2001). None of the studios were interested in it until John Woo became involved. He initially rejected the story until it was re-written from a futuristic to contemporary setting. Paramount offered the director more control of his work, although there were many content battles during filming and post-production. In the test release, the finale demanded by the studio was rejected by viewers. Paramount took those comments seriously and used the ending Woo had originally intended. The film became a hit.  

 

The story begins with Castor Troy’s attempt to assassinate FBI Special Agent Sean Archer (Travolta), but the bullet goes through Archer’s shoulder, killing the agent’s young son instead. That begins Archer’s years-long obsession with taking Troy down. His child’s death also brings about a personality change, in which the agent turns into a cold, raging embodiment of revenge. His wife Eve (Joan Allen), teen daughter Jamie (Dominique Swain), and co-workers bear the brunt of it.

 

A showdown at a remote, desert airstrip results in the capture of Troy and his brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola). Pollux is sent to a futuristic maximum prison, but before Troy slips into a coma, he taunts Archer with the news that a bomb is set to detonate in Los Angeles in a few days.

 

To discover the location, Archer goes through an experimental transplant trading his face for Castor Troy’s – and vice versa in order to preserve Archer’s face. This so Archer, impersonating Castor, can approach Pollux in prison to learn the location of the bomb.



(1) The plane taxis down the runway as the FBI chases after it. (2&3) Troy defies Archer as the agent commands him to stop the plane. (4) Troy threatens an FBI agent who has infiltrated the plane's crew. (5&6) Troy and Archer confront each other after the private jet runs into a plane hanger.




 

OF COURSE Castor awakens from his coma, and uncovers what’s happened to him. He kills the doctors, the only ones who know about the transplant, and destroys all medical records. Then sets out, impersonating Archer, to confuse the FBI and complete his evil mission.

 

Chuck your sense of logic and reason out the window. The crazy fun of “Face/Off” escalates as Travolta and Cage play mirror-perfect versions of each other, trying to outwit themselves in their attempts to either save or destroy L.A. Cue the gun fights, the chases and standoffs that become crazier and crazier as the film hurtles towards its penetrating finale.      

 

VIDEO

It’s taken 27 years for “Face/Off” to get a proper release on a physical disc. A Special Collector’s Edition was released in 2008 on Blu-ray, but suffered from an overdose of Digital Noise Reduction (DNR) and was mastered in 2K, the bane of which gives faces a super-smooth, plasticized appearance. “Face/Off” became a reality, but not in a good way.

 

Kino Lorber delivers a brand new HDR/Dolby Vision Master from a Paramount 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative (2.39:1 aspect ratio). The late British cinematographer Oliver Wood captured the story in various locations in Southern California.

 

It’s an excellent upgrade, producing previously shadowed detail from faces to wide-shots. The bold color palette is more sophisticated – sharper, with much better shading. Black levels are solid and steady, while contrast is more defined and intense. Film grain is light and consistent, completing a good, cinematic experience.



(1) The relationship between Archer and his wife Eve (Joan Allen) has become strained since the death of their son five years ago. Archer promises he'll take a desk job once Castor Troy is brought to justice. (2&3) Here comes the science fiction part of the story. Archer goes through an experimental transplant trading his face for Castor Troy’s – and vice versa - so Archer as Castor can approach Pollux Troy (Alessandro Nivola) in a state-of-the-art, futuristic prison to learn the location of a bomb hidden somewhere in Los Angeles. (4) Archer, now disguised as Castor Troy, studies his reflection. (5) Archer/Troy starts a riot in the prison. (6) Castor Troy, now disguised as Archer, taunts the agent that he'll soon be living with Eve.





AUDIO

Viewers may choose between 5.1 DTS-HD or 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks available on both the 2160p and 1080p discs. Dialogue comes through clearly (English subtitles are provided). Effects (lots of them – gunshots, explosions, roaring engines!) bounce around the room accompanied by the original score by John Powell (“How to Train Your Dragon”). Additional music includes Handle’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” Chopin’s “Prelude in D-Flat, Op 28, No. 15 (Raindrop), “Don’t Lose Your Head” performed by INXS, and “Stella by Starlight” by Ned Washington and Victor Young. Look for an iconic-Woo cinema moment in which a young boy watches an intense fight scene as “Over the Rainbow” plays on his headphones. Find more details on this one among the deleted scenes extra.

 

EXTRAS 

There are seven bonus features to choose from ranging from good to great. The favorites here were the carryovers, an audio commentary by John Woo, and writers Mike Werb and Michael Colleary – if you’re up for fun and friendship, facts and anecdotes. Some of this is repeated in an hour-plus “The Light and the Dark: The Making of ‘Face/Off’” documentary.

 

Our second fave, on par with the first, was “John Woo: A Life in Pictures,” a 25-minute bio-doc (2007). Woo tells us about his life – and what a life he’s led, escaping from China with his family after communism took over, moving to Hong Kong and living in dangerous, gangster-ruled slums. As a child, he was attacked every time he left the apartment, and learned to “carry something” with him at all times to protect himself. Woo’s refuge became movies – mostly the Hollywood musicals of the late 1940s through the 50s and beyond. One of his great joys was meeting and working with John Travolta, mega-star of “Saturday Night Fever,” “Grease” and the “Welcome back, Kotter” series. Woo wanted to become an actor, but was told he didn’t fit the mold. Eventually, he found work behind the cameras at the Shaw Brothers Studios; the rest is history.

 

Woo’s other refuge was the church, and once considered becoming a minister. He credits a Christian couple from the U.S. who financially supported his family for six years, helping with food, medical bills and allowing him to get an education. All of this led to his career in film, creating and directing ultra-violent gangster movies showcasing the conflict between good and evil. Both heroes and villains have a touch of both, he says. He also gave us “Mission Impossible 2,” demonstrating that the first Tom Cruise film in the franchise was no fluke, and helping propel the series to seven films so far. Woo also directed a fantastic, two-part historic Chinese military campaign action-drama, “Red Cliff,” featuring battles on land and water.

 

There are two more commentaries; a carryover by writers Web and Colleary that repeats too much of the one they shared with Woo. KL has also included a new commentary with Action Film Historians Mike Leeder and Arne Venema. It sounds like they’re near the end of a party. They provide insight into film’s place in cinema history.



(1) Castor, with Archer's face, entertains his FBI coworkers with his "new, carefree" personality. (2) Archer squares off with Castor in an iconic John Woo standoff. Note the golden gun. (3) The agent fears he may never return to his former life and family as Sean Archer.

 




Deleted and alternate scenes are always a fun watch; there are seven here. “The Light and the Dark: The Making of ‘Face/Off’” is a 64-minute, five-part documentary with interviews from the director, cast and crew, and some behind-scenes footage. It includes “Science Fiction/Human Emotion,” “Cast/Characters,” “Woo/Hollywood,” “Practical/Visual Effects,” and “Future/Past.”

 

Gun-fu was never intended to reflect reality. It’s a fantasy centered on violent battles between good and evil, with extreme characters and effects. It's okay to laugh. Some scenes were made for grins and winces. Also, by now, many of its hallmarks – showdowns in a church, fluttering pigeons – have become a cliché; we’ve seen it duplicated in so many action films. Gender stereotypes and harassment remind us of old school Hollywood. Even so, when “Face/Off” debuted, it showed female characters with more spine and smarts, baby-steps toward breaking the mold.

 

If you’ve seen “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” (2022) with its comic and tragic portrayal of Nic Cage, you’ll remember the homage to “Face/Off” and its props and stunts as a key element. Here, the Cage/Travolta star power comes across like a fist to the jaw – but should leave you with laughs instead of tears.

 

— Kay Reynolds



(1) Eve, suspicious of the changes in her husband, confronts the disguised Castor Troy. (2) Castor's Archer tries to reassure his "wife." (3&4) Archer, as Troy, prepares for the final showdown with his doppelganger in a church setting.




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