Only John Woo could have made “Face/Off” as much fun as it is, managing to override the central implausibility of its over-the-top storyline to deliver a masterful, classy potboiler that shouldn’t work at all. This wasn’t the acclaimed Chinese action director’s American debut (I believe that was 1993’s “Hard Target”), but it has the excitement and wide-eyed wonder of a talented novice being handed the keys to the kingdom: Every shot captures the energy of Woo’s barely contained excitement about making a big-budget studio epic, which has the impact of making the camera his biggest star. That being said, there’s a lot of competition for that title: Whenever they’re onscreen, both John Travolta and Nicolas Cage strut and preen like nothing could be more fun, whether it’s together or separate, or as each other. When they switch roles (in the most thrillingly ludicrous and hysterically campy B-movie plot development imaginable), they do so with infectious glee. Travolta, in particular, seems to be relishing the opportunity to go for high camp, and his performance here reminds you of his movie-star charisma and the caliber he brings when given the right material. From a structural perspective, Woo’s narrative development is distinctly symbolic, using a variety of visual cues to supplement the emotional nuance and significance missing from Mike Werb and Michael Colleary’s rudimentary screenplay, which gives the movie a fluid, ephemeral atmosphere that’s thrillingly unexpected in a big-budget mainstream studio picture.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of 5)