Film Reviews: The changing face of sci-fi with a heart

About a decade ago, there was a rash of silly, airy fantasies, all of them descended from Disney's Freaky Friday, in which people swapped identities the way children trade bubblegum cards. The new thriller Face/Off is a more imaginative work than any of those films, but is it a more sophisticated one?

Not in the science department. Nobody involved with the film wasted any time worrying about how to explain the process by which two men come to exchange faces. "We simply connect the muscles, tear-ducts and nerve endings," explains a boffin to the FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta), who might have looked a touch more perturbed given that it's his muscles, tear-ducts and nerve endings that are being interfered with.

You would at least want to determine the good doctor's aptitude with the plug on a travel iron before you let him loose on the vermicelli of your nervous system.

As you might have gathered, plausibility is as crucial to Face/Off as demolition derbies and full-frontal sex scenes were to the films of Ingmar Bergman. But just because the movie's premise is fantastic, that doesn't preclude it from engaging real emotions. Sometimes the conundrums which Face/Off constructs have a phoney, over-deliberate feel; they're like the topics that producers choose to jazz up their television talk shows. How would you feel if you had to swap faces with someone? And what if that someone happened to be the man who had murdered your son?

Although the film is built around these mechanical dilemmas, you can be surprised by the emotional force carried by the various plot permutations. After Archer has assumed the identity of the comatose Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), in order to extract delicate information from Troy's brother, the now faceless donor unexpectedly stirs from his coma and slips into something more comfortable - namely Archer's own discarded face, which is conveniently floating in a nearby jar.

With the psychopath now wearing the law-man's face, you expect the lunatic to take over the asylum. "I've got a government job to abuse," leers Troy, recalling Superman III, where the superhero's bad incarnation stopped shaving and started flying drunk, tarnishing his better self's good name. What is less predictable is that the lunatic should choose to brighten things up around the asylum, making life fun for his fellow inmates.

As Archer, Troy is a hit. He doesn't abandon his old psychopathic ways altogether, but he's nice to his colleagues, and despite initial hints of incestuous intent, he is a more relaxed and protective father toward Archer's rebellious daughter than Archer ever was. And a more attentive husband to Eve (Joan Allen): she gets compliments and candle-lit dinners, while we are left to ponder whether there aren't some delicate discrepancies between the two men that a wife could spot in a flash.

More crisply satisfying than any of these ironies is the scene where Troy, as Archer, accompanies Eve to "their" son's grave. Troy is forced to comfort Eve, and in so doing confront the raw agony of those he has wounded. But is he acting? Or experiencing genuine remorse? It's an ambiguous moment brought sharply into focus when it is revealed that Troy had switched off his bleeper for the graveside visit, a small concession which suggests empathy, a quality traditionally denied your average movie psychopath.

Face/Off offers the same basic pleasures as Big or All of Me: a chance to observe the performer's craft pared to the bone, with an actor playing somebody playing a role. Face/Off goes even further by giving us a full half-hour of Travolta as the hero and Cage as the villain before their faces are switched and we are forced to transfer our allegiances accordingly.

In most films, the one thing you can rely upon is that a character will maintain a consistent appearance from beginning to end without fluctuation. Not here. Face/Off overturns the fundamental physical principles which define our modes of perception; the soul remains the same but the physical form becomes fluid. Hitchcock would undoubtedly have approved of the discomfort this causes an audience.

Once Travolta accepts the baton from his co-star, he takes on the more showy part, revelling in imitating Cage's lecherous, bug-eyed hysteria. He does self-deprecation by proxy too, relishing every chance he gets to be disparaging about his Danish pastry of a body. What a sport.

Consigned to the more pensive role of Archer-as-Troy, it is Cage who impresses the most. There is real anguish in his beginner's attempts at behaving like a homicidal maniac; his evil cackle barely disguises the tearful frustration of a man imprisoned in an identity that nips and itches like a hairshirt.

I suppose it's oddly appropriate that this intelligent psychological thriller should itself be trapped in the wrong body, duty-bound to adhere to the codes of the action-movie genre of which it has made itself a part. The set-pieces are elegantly choreographed, as you would expect from director John Woo, with every explosion shot in dreamy slow-motion so it resembles a July 4th celebration. But the proficiency of these sequences doesn't prevent them from being superfluous.

And is it too much to ask that a film should hire stunt performers who bear a passing resemblance to the actors for whom they're doubling? Ironic that a movie so concerned with physical appearance should allow such an obvious and distracting flaw to go uncorrected.

It's to the picture's advantage that Woo has a wider scope of reference than you would expect from an action director. Face/Off pays extensive homage to Darkman (directed by Sam Raimi, producer of Woo's Hard Target), a film with which it shares some key scenes. And there are also nods to Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face, the grand-daddy of all surgery movies. The influence of Franju's picture might also account for the sudden invasion of doves during a shoot-out in a church, though this shouldn't let Woo off the hook for his overbearing use of religious symbolism. I bet he would have had them all fly on with olive branches clamped in their beaks if it had been possible.

But no matter how stinging or resonant parts of Face/Off might be, its power is repeatedly dissipated by the knowledge that another shoot-out is waiting around the corner. Two years ago, a film called Suture, by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, managed to be as playful and challenging as Face/Off without recourse to gratuitous violence.

In Suture, a man disfigured in a car wreck is mistakenly remade in the image of his brother; the picture ends with him buried inside his new persona, apparently happy. The gap in sophistication between the two films can be measured by the fact that Face/Off climaxes instead with a speedboat chase. That sequence is a particularly ugly example of the transplanted organ that doesn't suit its new body, or the graft that just won't take.

Face/Off is released today.

Nostalgia gets a slating

UP ON THE ROOF

If a film is going to trace the lives and loves of five friends over 16 years, the least you could hope for is that those characters might evolve, or prove interesting. But the chums who graduate from university at the start of Up on the Roof don't develop beyond our first glimpse of them. The film hops from the 1970s to the 1990s, with a brief pit-stop in the 1980s, and if the early scenes are the most ticklish, that's to the credit of the costume designer, who has assembled a wardrobe which features all those memories that you thought you had buried: corduroy, tie-dye, even purple underpants.

Bizarrely, the film is a musical as well as a rose-tinted nostalgia trip. Any potential viewers should be warned that the characters are given to bursting into a cappella medleys willy-nilly. After the 1970s scenes, I had hoped that the 1980s section would reveal that the intervening years had relieved the gang of their ambition to be the next Brotherhood of Man. Instead, one of the characters stands up at dinner and announces: "I feel a Donna Summer Megamix coming on." And do his pals laugh and mock him mercilessly? No. They join in, grinning like the Famous Five on Ecstacy. It's that sort of film.

MAXIMUM RISK

In 1992, Jean-Claude Van Damme gave the acclaimed Chinese film-maker John Woo his first American break by hiring him to direct the abysmal Hard Target. Now, on the same day that Woo's Face/Off is released, Van Damme's latest vehicle splutters into town, with another Chinese director - Ringo Lam, whose City of Fire inspired Reservoir Dogs - at the helm to inject added style and credibility. Fat chance.

In Maximum Risk, our perpetually inexpressive hero discovers that the twin brother he never knew he had has just been killed by Russian gangsters. To discover exactly what happened, he adopts his sibling's identity, pausing only to have a quick heart-to-heart with his Ma before jetting off to New York's Russian community Little Odessa (which gets such cursory representation that you can tell the screenwriter's research amounted to nothing more than renting the film Little Odessa from his local video library).

Needless to say, Maximum Risk is as inept and simple-minded as any of Van Damme's films. Minimal curiosity value arises from a peculiar fight sequence set in a men's sauna. Watching all those basted bodies hurtling into each other is like witnessing a food fight with whole turkeys as ammunition.

THE GAMBLER

A mixture of autobiography and adaptation, this sombre film introduces us to a gruff Dostoevsky (Michael Gambon), whose pain and insecurity surfaces through the burgeoning relationship with his stenographer Anna (Jodhi May), who is hired to help him work on The Gambler. The dramatised excerpts from the novel only interrupt the momentum of the affecting scenes between May, wide-eyed and brimming with vitality, and Gambon, who once again delivers a performance of such skill and subtlety that it renders quibbles about his accent irrelevant.

MY MOTHER'S COURAGE

George Tabori visits the set of a film about the life of his mother, a woman who chose pride and resilience as her response to Nazi occupation, prompting a flashback to the day she was herded off to "the Jewish bakery". Brechtian devices abound, with Tabori stepping into the past to comment on the scruffiness of Hungarian Nazis. But the warmth of Pauline Collins' performance in the lead role bridges the distance forged by such coolly intellectual techniques. The director Michael Verhoeven ventures some daring tricks too, like the shot of Jews huddling together in the train carriage, their compulsory yellow stars burning in the darkness to create a haunting tableau: a night sky pregnant with apocalyptic foreboding.

WILL THERE BE SNOW AT CHRISTMAS?

Directed by Sandrine Veysset

It's triumph over adversity time again in rural France, with a nameless Mother (Dominique Reymond) marshalling her brood to work on the farm owned by their father. This cruel fellow doesn't actually live with his family - not this family anyway, since he's got another homestead which he happily shares with his wife and their two sons. We shall have to wait for the director's cut before we discover how he found time to sire seven illegitimate children by his mistress, not to mention how he managed to explain this curious situation to his wife.

Let's just put it down to cultural differences, because all the characters here seem fairly content with their domestic arrangements. I think this matter-of-fact approach is the only way that the director Sandrine Veysset could have hoped to get the film past a modern, sceptical audience. She builds the picture around the family's monotonous rituals, blurring the days and seasons into one another to create an atmosphere, rather than a realistic view, of these characters' lives. The cute opening sequence leads you to anticipate, with some dread, a sugar-and-spice celebration of childhood along the lines of Truffaut's L'Argent de Poche. And Veysset, like Truffaut, does her argument for the nobility of youth a minor disservice by assembling a cast who could provide Benetton with poster children well into the next century. If you can forgive the fact that these youngsters haven't got a lazy eye or a jug ear between them, then you will be entranced by this largely unsentimental film, shot in an unfussy style verging on documentary.

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