(John Woo, US, 1997)
What makes a 'high class' action flick? Surely the action genre is lowest denominator entertainment: macho posturing, big boobs, bigger guns, biggest explosions; wisecracks, cartoon baddies, slapstick violence; topped off with a jumbo box of popcorn or a sixpack. Yeah, well, usually. With John Woo, you get all of the above, making for a great night's mindless violent entertainment. But what you also get is superb cinematography - Woo is the only director now working in Hollywood who could make the image of one boat slicing into another look beautiful; sci-fi theories that are actually closer to being true than you might think; and, perhaps best of all, John Travolta and Nic Cage at their funky wacked-out best.
Although the basic premise (being able to swap faces by laser treatment) sounds like a futuristic sci-fi fable, this is a film that doesn't rely too much on actors performing against a blue screen with FX added later. So what you get is lots of ACTION and lots of ooh-shit-that-was-a-close-call moments. These guys could go on Oprah with their near-death experiences, but you know that the good guy's gonna win in the end. The only prob is, the good guy, Sean Archer, is a chubby hubby with a major guilt complex who's "not having any fun", and the bad guy, Castor Troy, is one cool fucking dude with a neat sideline in megalomania. Both Cage and Travolta are exemplary at playing the crazy bad guy, and obviously have more fun doing so. Cage in particular is great fun to watch in his opening scene, dressed as a priest and doing the funky chicken to Hallelujah before feeling up a nubile young lovely who later transpires to be Archer's teenage daughter (played by lolita Dominique Swain.)
The special FX that are there are done really well, and the not-too-far-off futuristic story elements: a metal prison where the inmates wear magnetic boots; a chemical bomb that will spread a biblical-style plague across the city; and of course, the face-swapping; are all things that actually have precedents in the present (an ex-oil rig to be turned into a prison in America, the subway bombings in Tokyo, a dairy girl who had her faced ripped off by a milking machine and restitched on; to name just three possible elements of inspiration). This means that whilst the fore-mentioned narrow escapes from death get more and more improbable, the general storyline is not entirely unconvincing. Anyway, this is meant to be mindless action flick, why does it have to be convincing? Being a John Woo film, it's also a homage to Hollywood's favourite clichés, with old Judy Garland songs; a Western-style showdown that ends in a complicated Mexican stand-off ("Ooh-wee, ain't this a predicament!?) in - where else? - a church; a grumpy boss; a tart-with-a-heart; a stressed-out wife who just happens to be a doctor; a good-guy-disguised-as-bad-guy-protecting-the-little-kid-and-showing-everyone-he-ain't-so-bad-after-all; nasty prison warders; psychos banged up and bashed about; dumb sidekicks; powerboats racing (the only thing missing was the shark-in-the-water!) The big difference is, John Woo does them all better. And the result is a brilliant way to spend a few hours that requires a little suspension of disbelief, a sense of humour, an eye for detail - and a jumbo box of popcorn.
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