Writing in The Nation in 1944, James Agee mused on writer/director Preston Sturges’ success in ushering The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek past the censors of the day and onto American movie screens. Morgan’s Creek is a comedy about small town girl Trudy Kockenlocker, who sneaks into a dance with a bunch of soldiers from a nearby army base. They’re whooping it up one last time before shipping off to fight overseas. In a decidedly unwholesome plot twist, Trudy sleeps with one of the soldiers and is made pregnant — but she was so sloshed at the time that she can’t remember who the father was!

This was 1944, folks. And while Sturges was a supremely witty and well respected filmmaker, Agee summed up his feelings of surprise this way: “The Hays Office has been either hypnotized into a liberality for which it should be thanked, or has been raped in its sleep.”

I feel sorta the same way about the R-rated Face/Off, which apparently faced off with the MPAA and came out more or less intact. I lost count of how many innocent policemen and prison guards got mowed down over the course of the movie, but the answer is a lot. We have bruising fistfights aplenty, bad attitude to spare, and a pair of rough-and-tumble more-macho-than-thou protagonists who aren’t shy about brandishing guns. You’d think that at some point, some feathers woulda been ruffled.

Just a few years ago, Hong Kong director John Woo’s American debut, Hard Target, was emasculated first by Universal and then by the MPAA. (What was left was pretty flaccid, but the longer, more violent “director’s cut” has its moments.) Still, in terms of bullets and body counts, Face/Off makes even the uncensored Hard Target look about as brutal as an episode of Seinfeld.

So how did Paramount squeak all this mayhem past the ratings board? (These are the people who sent the amiable comic thriller Scream back to have a mere 20 seconds of bloodshed excised, fercryinoutloud.) Well, you could suggest that the cheerfully unlikely science fiction story softens the real-world impact of Woo’s orgiastic shootouts, and that may be so, to a certain extent. If you’re more cynical, you can note that Michael Douglas executive-produced, and that stars John Travolta and Nicolas Cage carry a little more weight on the West Coast than did Hard Target‘s Jean Claude Van Damme. And of course, with Titanic delayed until December, Paramount can use a big hit in the meantime.

Ideally, I’d like to believe that the wildly, wickedly violent Face/Off earned its R because the ratings board recognized that its violence is a metaphoric expression of its characters’ lives. The violence in Face/Off is only “excessive” in the same way that, say, opera is excessive. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s revelatory on its own terms and essential to the ideas and emotions being expressed. If Face/Off were a less violent film, it could easily be a more gratuitous one — it would certainly be a less interesting one.

As it stands, Face/Off is one hell of a good film, and Woo’s first Hollywood adventure with any substance. Hard Target, Woo’s stateside debut, was only one among many remakes of “The Most Dangerous Game,” and his subsequent Broken Arrow (poorly scripted by Speed scribe Graham Yost) was the kind of generic situational thriller that undercuts the strengths of its filmmakers. But the concept of Face/Off is a doozy, and one that throws Woo’s best Hong Kong work into an echo chamber. In both The Killer and Hard Boiled, Woo played heroes and villains against one another, portraying both cops and robbers as driven professionals adhering to different codes of moral conduct. Here, that thematic concern is given the kind of literal twist that could only play in a delirious midsummer action movie — a crazy chain of events leads a criminal and a cop to trade faces and identities. (Woo wisely jettisoned the original, futuristic setting of the clever screenplay, no doubt dispensing with what would have been too many sci-fi pleasantries.)

As equally obsessive sides of the same coin, good guy/bad guy Travolta and bad guy/good guy Cage are magnificent in a testosterone-pumped sort of way. Little needs to be said about the specifics of the plot except that yes, the premise is quite impossible and no, you will not care. All it takes is some doctorly doublespeak and a cheerfully gross operating room sequence, and questions of plausability are sent through the window like so many bullets. When it’s over, Travolta’s Sean Archer is in Castor Troy’s — that is, Cage’s — body. He’s going undercover into a maximum security prison to try and trick Troy’s brother Pollux into giving away the location of a bomb that the Troys planted before they were captured. But while Archer-as-Troy is in prison, the now-faceless Troy unexpectedly wakes from his coma, forces the doctors to graft Archer’s face onto his body, and kills everyone who knows that the operation ever took place.

Got it? Well, before you’ve had time to shake your head and mutter something snide to your moviegoing companion, you’re captivated. Woo and his performers relish the ensuing identity crisis, and the first confrontation between Cage-as-Archer and Travolta-as-Troy smolders with the kind of intensity that’s been so sorely missing from American action movies of late. Say what you want about bloated superstar paychecks — these two earn their salaries. Travolta is great fun to watch, but Cage really shines in the more difficult role. Mostly, he emanates fear and anger as a good — but fundamentally weak — man trapped in his enemy’s body. He can barely stand to look in the mirror. In prison, Cage-as-Archer-as-Troy doesn’t quite know how to be a cellblock badass, but he gives it his best, looniest shot. And when Travolta-as-Troy-as-Archer shows up to rub Archer’s face in the life that he’s lost, his feelings of loss and desparation are overpowering.

Travolta, meanwhile, has good devilish fun playing the bad guy who settles into the good guy’s suburban routine. He effortlessly romances Archer’s neglected wife (Joan Allen, looking out of place) and connects with his alienated daughter (Dominique Swain, of the still-unreleased Lolita). The scenes are played for laughs, but there’s a genuinely disturbing undercurrent to them, as when Travolta steps into the girl’s bedroom and leers at Swain’s barely-clad posterior before bumming a cigarette. Pretty sleazy, yes, but it turns out that he’s a more honorable man than we suspect. (Not so honorable is his bedding down with Mrs. Archer, but she seems to relish being, for once, the object of romantic attention.)

In the meantime, Archer himself has to find a way to break out of the prison, and soon finds himself taking refuge with Troy’s “family,” who have no idea that anything’s unusual. The pace of the film flags a little bit, but the scenes are crucial. Archer reluctantly knocks back a pharmaceutical cocktail in a communal scene that borders on ceremony, and then learns that even the most evil of men has a home life as well as people who love him and need him. But soon enough, the L.A.P.D. will be descending on the apartment, guns blazing.

In one scene that may demonstrate Woo’s ambivalence toward his own perfect scenes of bloodshed, Archer slips a pair of headphones over a child’s ears during the most delirious of the film’s assault sequences. Cue “Over the Rainbow” to well up over the film soundtrack in a sequence that must have caused a nervous twitch or two in studio screening rooms. It’s not empty symbolism — Woo loves Hollywood musicals, and says they helped him imagine a way out of the violent neighborhood where he spent his youth. (The Wizard of Oz is one of his earliest moviegoing memories.) Of course, the balletic shootouts that perforate Face/Off are close cinematic kin to the equally unlikely song-and-dance glow that bathes the best movie musicals.

“Over the Rainbow” is only the most overt instance of sentimentality in a film that’s awash in double-barrelled angst. The extreme violence is a countervailing force that snaps the narrative back from the maudlin, and the picture is shot through with a cheerful, winking sense of humor that defuses the violent tension. It’s a crazy balance that Woo manages to strike over and over again, moving in one direction or another exactly as far as he dares. The movie is a little long, and a few scenes start to drift dangerously off-base. But why quibble when the end result is so wholly satisfying?

I’ve gone on and on about the violence in this film, but I should emphasize that, to my eyes, it’s not at all troublesome. When violence is choreographed as well as it is here, it’s sheer catharsis. (One of the film editors is Christian A. Wagner, who did similarly superb work on True Romance.) In John Woo’s case, film violence is part of a rich kinetic tradition that includes the history of martial arts cinema as well as the rigorous physicality and stylized action of the Peking Opera tradition. The only murder that counts as such is the first one, seen in flashback, when a sniping Troy aims to assassinate Archer but kills his three-year-old son instead. All the rest of the appalling, exhilarating bloodshed is just the means to an end. The bullets tearing through flesh, the blaze of semiautomatic weaponry, the confetti blizzard that accompanies a trademark Woo firefight, all are representative of the obsessive and obliterating emotional turmoil that haunts Archer’s life as he hunts down the one man who has caused him the most profound pain.

Face/Off, I feel, is about many things. On one level it’s a summation of Woo’s career so far, with trademark imagery and set pieces that deliberately recall his Hong Kong work. On another, it’s a cracking good action fantasy — a big noisy comic book melodrama with two sparkling action heroes going after each other and blissfully few computer generated special effects getting in the way. Brilliantly, it’s a movie about performance — the ways we perform for the people we love, the people we hate, and the people who pay nine bucks to see us (well, some of us) in the movies. And on the level where it may be most unexpected, it’s about the shared experiences that unite all of us. It’s about confronting the humanity of the people we hate most, and the hatred inside of ourselves. In the style of a virtuoso, Woo finds beauty and meaning in a haze of bullets.

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