Action movies get just about the worst press imaginable, although it’s hardly as if nothing is said or written in their defense. If you go into a specialist film bookshop, or surf the Internet, you’ll find thousands of breathless, starstruck fan letters to action stars and action directors – nothing terribly intelligent or insightful, mind you, but certainly a lot of passionate enthusiasm.
Above ground, amongst mainstream reviewers and in the more sedate centres of filmgoing culture, action movies are tolerated – they have to be tolerated, because they make a lot of money – but they’re not encouraged, indulged or celebrated. Action movies are the shameful public secret of the cinema, as if they constituted the most primitive, least evolved, least sophisticated form of cinema possible. Action movies, in this largely unspoken assessment, are dumb, macho and brutish.
Many reviewers feel exploited and demeaned when the terms of their employment occasionally require them to stoop to actually discussing an action movie: they say, for the umpteenth time, that these films are formulaic, clichéd, improbable and contrived, mere taradiddles (to use the favoured word of one senior Australian film critic) or bland audio-visual junk-food to be flushed out of one’s system instantly.
Then there’s the more high-moralistic attack on action movies: that they’re militarist glorifications of violence, preaching that might is right; or that they’re hysterical, rearguard actions launched by a patriarchy in decline; or that they function as nasty, cynical, electro-shock treatment for increasingly numbed, desensitised viewers.
Curiously, all these discourses on action cinema tend to meet at the same point. The nerdish fan, the bored critic and the thundering ideologue all end up saying that action movies are not very good when they feature two-dimensional, stereotyped goodies and baddies, or stock situations that repeat the moves of a hundred previous action movies, or when they get into plots that emphasise gratuitous violence (I love this term, which implies the shady existence of justifiable violence!).
I could argue at length that there are some great action movies, and some good action movies, and some just-plain-intriguing ones. The great ones of recent years would include John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992), Richard Donner’s Assassins (1995), Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (1996) and Clint Eastwood’s Absolute Power (1997). But I well know that the gesture of baptising a select handful of masterpieces and top directors in a genre often functions as a sly way of dismissing the vast majority of such films – i.e., of not facing that genre as a genre.
The humble fact of the matter is this: there are hundreds of lowly action movies in your local video shop that can give more or less the same buzz as those few anointed masterpieces. Literally hundreds of movies that share in the genre’s fundamental qualities of humour, spectacle and exhibitionism, and a certain sort of raw, often very disarming social commentary/critique that’s a million miles away from anything sanctimonious.
The action movie that has prompted these reflections is John Woo’s ballistic fight-fest Face/Off starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. Travolta is Sean, a good-guy supercop, on the trail of a villain, Castor, played with Dennis Hopper-style excess by Cage. Castor has wired a bomb in a secret location as insurance against getting nabbed on his latest big job, and indeed he is nabbed by Sean. And seemingly killed, as well. When they learn about the hidden bomb, the good guys can’t manage to persuade any of Castor’s gang – particularly his snivelling, mad-genius brother, Pollux (Alessandro Nivola)! – to say or admit anything.
But Walsh (Colm Feore), a scientist on the law’s side, has his own insurance plan worked out: he has a way of swapping Castor’s face for Sean’s. That allows our hero, now wearing the villain’s face, to infiltrate the criminal gang. Naturally, this whole plan goes hideously wrong: not only does the good guy end up behind bars, seemingly trapped forever inside his new identity, but Castor wakes up in the lab, alive and mad as hell. Before too long, he is (surreally but logically enough) wearing Sean’s face.
This is where the fun really starts, with the bad version of Sean insinuating himself into the job and the home of his nemesis. That means he can now manipulate the FBI for his own unlawful purposes, and have intimate chats with the American President on the phone. It also means that, every night, he gets to sleep with his arch rival’s wife (Eve played by Joan Allen) – who was starting to feel a bit frustrated with the previous, workaholic incarnation of her husband – and also to move in rather creepily on the teenage daughter of the house (Dominique Swain as Jamie). This is a true Cape Fear-type nightmare, the ultimate intimacy thriller freak-out.
But it’s a pity that Woo’s film does so little with this really deliciously subversive premise. In fact, it runs away from the whole show – we don’t see the villain having sex with the hero’s wife, and the whole daughter-seduction angle is virtually dropped. Even the twisted, subversive possibilities available to Castor in his new position of power are hardly played out. But there’s pay-off in a different register: what is frankly pleasurable here is Travolta’s performance, a star pretending to be underwhelmed by his (own) new face and body, playing at power and status and smooth talk, when he’s really meant to be just an animal underneath. He’s an evil figure of comedy – or a comic figure of evil – as he was in Woo’s previous Broken Arrow (1996). Best of all, as the film unfolds, Travolta gets to catch up with Cage and match his histrionic performance.
While all of this mischief is going on, Sean-with-the-face-of-Castor, in the weakest part of the film, just sits in his jail cell, moaning and despairing. But he finally breaks out, and then a series of long, protracted showdowns (face-offs) can begin.
There are a few possible approaches to Face/Off. First, as an outrageous, postmodern, high-concept movie (beginning with its suspiciously academic, quasi-Derridean, punningly slashed title!) – a movie that takes an almost avant-garde interest in the literal interchangeability of faces, bodies and personalities, and the social consequences of such mayhem. Don’t ask for any realism – not even a cyberpunk kind of realism – from the surgical face-swap premise (the script is by the team of Mike Werb & Michael Colleary). By the time both Castor and Sean are bedding down with each other’s regular partners, the strict believability of this premise has been worn super-thin. Nobody, it seems, can ever tell these two guys apart.
But who cares about such plausibility points? It’s a mad, hi-tech tall-tale of a movie, and the shots of great star faces removed from their bodies and swimming in fluid – or, later, the gruesome flashes of Cage smoking a cigarette without any face at all – are, as they say in the trade, alone worth the price of admission.
The second way into Face/Off is to take it as an action film, a genre in which Woo is an undisputed master: a virtuoso of pure action dynamics and action spectacle, the clinch and the gauntlet, and those big set-pieces that just keep building and getting bigger across the course of the plot. In terms of these pure action-pyrotechnics, how does it rate? The answer, alas, is not so high.
There are some terrific, inventive moments – such as a Hard Boiled-type scene where a scene of bloody mayhem is overlaid not with the sounds of shooting, screaming and dying, but an almost serene muzak-like arrangement of “Over the Rainbow”. But Face/Off is ultimately a wearing movie on the action front – too many clinches, offering diminishing spectacular returns. A big scene with our two main men squaring off in motor boats is particularly flat, coming at a point where you really want this film to drive home and wind up.
Third, you can think of Face/Off more directly as a Woo film – and as the latest episode in his curious American career. Woo’s work is as fascinating to study as it is to enjoy. The Hong Kong production Hard Boiled is his masterpiece, but The Killer (1989) and the A Better Tomorrow duo (1986 & 1987) are great viewing, too; away from the solemn proclivity, there’s also his breezy action-comedy Once a Thief (1991), which in fact has a bunch of things in common with the aforementioned Absolute Power.
Woo’s path is also intriguing to look at from industrial and cultural angles. There can be no doubt that Face/Off is a braver, more confident, more successful movie than either of his previous American efforts, Hard Target (1993) or Broken Arrow. But it still raises the big question for diehard Woo fans: can the formula of his Hong Kong movies possibly survive in this new cultural and industrial environment of the USA? The answer still seems to be: yes and no.
Although some commentators sometimes want to see only ancient traditions of Asian art in contemporary Asian cinema, Woo’s Bullet in the Head (1990) showed how eclectic and international Hong Kong cinema really is. It is a saga of male bonding played out against the history of the Vietnam war, a little in the vein of The Deerhunter (1978). Woo draws on the American Martin Scorsese for his violent effects, but also on the taut minimalism of French Jean-Pierre Melville, and equally on the sweeping, operatic grandiosity of Italian Sergio Leone. (And all this violence despite the director’s legendary personal serenity and sense of spirituality – I am unlikely to ever forget the surreal spectacle of Woo introducing a special press screening of one of this films in the heart of Melbourne’s largest casino, and unironically praising the site’s “sacredness”!)
Watching Bullet in the Head, I realised that the best moments in Woo’s films are not the actual orgies of violence, but the moments just before these begin, when guys exchange sublimely longing looks, throws weapons to each other in slow motion, and steel themselves for battle. That sort of clinch brings in the grandly “heroic” (read: masochistic and homoerotic) dimensions of Woo’s best films, with their specific national-cultural undertones. There are American action movies in the ritualistic and masochistic vein (by Sam Peckinpah or Michael Cimino, for instance) but, so far, Woo hasn’t had a chance to make one in the USA.
In Hollywood, Woo is shooting his action clinches with better technical resources than ever, and that’s a good thing. There’s some fine stand-off stuff here, the “Mexican stand-off” arrangement that Tarantino borrowed from Hong Kong cinema for Reservoir Dogs (1992). Woo is always good at action logistics (you always know what’s going on, when and where and how, no matter how complex the set-piece), and just as good at what William Friedkin calls incidence, where there’s always something arresting and intriguing going on inside the minute moves of a battle.
In Face/Off, Woo also manages to bring back something that really marks his Hong Kong work, and that’s his sentimentality: his fondness for little kids rescued from the line of fire, and reunited/makeshift families forged almost accidentally in the heat of an action-crisis. I’d have to say that the family-values part of Face/Off is not its best part; in fact, it’s pretty awful – but, for whatever it’s worth, it is pure Woo.
What is likely never to come back in Woo’s career, however, is his penchant for spirited, silly, slapstick comedy, somewhat in the Jackie Chan vein. It’s hard to think of any stoic, hard-bitten American action hero, no matter how inclined to comedy (like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis), doing the zany, childlike things that Hong Kong heroes regularly do.
Surprisingly enough, on the Woo balance sheet, one characteristic of his art that you’d think should survive, and even flourish, has so far not carried over into his American period. This is his fix on men in conflict: goodies and baddies who are glamorous, secret soul-brothers, and whose confrontations have a mythic, ritual, inexorable quality to them. Instead of the symbiosis of tough guys on different sides of the law, we have in Woo’s American films a concept that still seems foreign to him: precisely the concept of evil, embodied in the absolutely bad man who must be expunged from the world in the course of some righteous revenge mission.
The evil character of Castor in Face/Off, as I indicated above, has comical aspects – and kinky, lurid, perverse aspects, all of which are very weird and not yet entirely convincing in a Woo film. What is America doing to him? Actually, the very opening of the film marks the height of its kinkiness. Having planted his super-bomb, Castor, dressed as a priest, dances across a noble piazza, shrieking out the “Hallelujah Chorus” before he begins feeling up some rather young choir girls. Cage is so outrageous that the whole crazy conceit works.
Compare this to Chow Yun-fat, Woo’s favourite action star in his Hong Kong days. Chow could wear disguises, talk or shoot his way in and out of any place, pull off some amazing stunts – but what evil Nic Cage does in the Land of the Free, Chow Yun-fat could never do.
© Adrian Martin August 1997