New Faces of 1997

Travolta and Cage Face/Off in mug-slinging match

Woo's sources are the American pulp noirs and, of course, such directors as Sam Peckinpah and Akira Kurosawa. But, like Brian De Palma riffing Alfred Hitchcock, he's driven to go beyond his models and be even crazier than they ever were. In a movie like Hard-Boiled, in which he stages a virtuoso bloodbath in a Hong Kong hospital, Woo is gaga for the poetry of slo-mo death throes. He's so passionate about it that he goes beyond pulp into a kind of grotesque gorgeousness. With Peckinpah, there was always an ambivalence built into his violent set pieces, but Woo openly courts--and satisfies--our primal desire to see people pulverized. Even five years ago, his brand of mayhem might have seemed too way-out for American audiences, but because of the increasingly heightened violence in our own movies--and especially because of the Hong Kong-movie influence in the films of Quentin Tarantino--Woo may soon be anointed as Hollywood's new crown prince of aestheticized gore.

The imprimatur of Travolta and Cage helps buy off the high gore quotient for mainstream audiences. By now we've become accustomed to both of them appearing, separately, in action flicks that normally would go to stalwart mediocrities. With the older generation of action stars such as Stallone and Schwarzenegger growing too long in the tooth to deliver or dodge missiles, and with action movies more than ever the ticket to international stardom, we're seeing a new and funkier breed of action star, with Cage and Travolta leading the pack. One of the few perverse pleasures of Con Air was watching Cage, along with all those other brainy, high-style, overqualified actors such as John Malkovich and John Cusack, bopping about in a Jerry Bruckheimer blow-'em-up-real-good no-brainer. Cage is next set to star as the Man of Steel in Tim Burton's Superman film; Travolta has already appeared in a Woo film, Broken Arrow, in which he played a mercenary nut not unlike Castor in Face/Off.

So far, at least, these actors haven't played out their action-figure incarnations simply as paydays. They try to put more into these roles than we're accustomed to--even if that "more," in the case of, say, Cage in Con Air, is just a drawling bull-goose eccentricity. At least it's different. When these actors goof, they're still more enjoyable than the deadhead mediocrities.

Because Travolta and Cage do more than dally in Face/Off, there's a compelling strangeness about what they're up to; it speaks to the strangeness at the heart of acting, where you are required to be yourself and yet be someone else. If Travolta comes across as the more obviously effective of the two impersonators, it's only because Cage presents a more definable personality for the actor to inhabit. He's more easily imitable.

Travolta is a more amorphous screen personality--that's what makes him such an original presence. How do you capture the essence of a chameleon? That's what Cage is confronted with here, and he succeeds by plugging in to an essential sweetness in Travolta, an impassioned frailty. Travolta returns the compliment by extending Cage's maniacal glee into more rarefied realms than even Cage himself has gone. It's a sight to see.

Directed by John Woo; with John Travolta and Nicolas Cage.

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