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Face/Off concludes with a standoff, with Archer as Troy, Troy as Archer, and several of Troy’s goons all aiming weapons at each other while Eve stands in the dead-center, in danger of taking the brunt of all those bullets. It’s a scenario Woo excels at staging. “The stand-off is my trademark,” Woo said. “In my theory, I always feel no one is perfect in this world. There is no real good guy or bad guy in this world. You can see yourself in the bad people. The bad people can see themselves in the good people. So that’s why I created the movement of the stand-off scene. No matter if it’s a good guy or bad guy, they’re all equal.”

After a speedboat chase that ends in a boat not just crashing but flying through the air in a fireball, Troy is killed and Archer is restored to his old self, after Eve convinces the rest of the FBI of the face-changing surgery. After healing from the surgery (for some inexplicable reason, Archer has the doctors reinstall the love handles they removed from his hips to turn him into Troy, Archer returns home with a surprise: he’s adopted Adam, Troy and Sasha’s son. This was a reshoot: Woo originally wanted a much darker ending, where Archer returns home, only to glance in a mirror and see Troy’s face staring back at him. Test audiences didn’t go for it, so the epilogue where Archer brings home Adam was added. Yet even though this scene is played as a tender moment, there’s an insidious underbelly to it all. Archer is in a sense replacing his dead son with the son of his mortal enemy. He may have given up Troy’s visage, but he’s still in a sense clinging to a piece of him. Even now, after all the bloodshed, Archer is unable to completely let Castor Troy go.

Beyond Face/Off

Face/Off should not work. It’s an inherently goofy idea filled with implausibilities. The fact that it does work, and works so incredibly well, is a testament to Woo’s ability as a filmmaker. Some filmmakers truly discover their film in the editing bay, but Woo has it all laid out in his mind. Often during Face/Off, he would drive his actors crazy by shooting only one take of a scene. So confident was he in his cinematic abilities that Woo failed to see the need for multiple takes or coverage. The big action beats are works of art, blossoming with Woo’s flourishes. It’s a stark contrast to today’s action filmmaking, which is hindered by pre-visualization software that renders action scenes boring and flat. There’s nothing boring and flat about Face/Off, a rare example of a Hollywood action movie free of restraints.

Face/Off seemed to signal that Woo had finally arrived in Hollywood. The film earned positive reviews and cleaned-up at the box office. The sky was the limit for John Woo, and he was ecstatic to be working in America. “Here in America I feel I have many more opportunities, especially now that I have all this wonderful support and so many projects,” he said. “In America you can say anything that you want, create anything you want. In Hong Kong, unfortunately, you have to be careful of everything you do and say. And this I don’t like.”

Yet Woo would never be able to catch the lunatic magic of Face/Off in Hollywood. He made three more American films – the messy Mission: Impossible 2, the almost incoherent Paycheck, and Windtalkers, a stab at prestige filmmaking that unfortunately failed to hit the mark. It didn’t help matters that the film apparently lost $60m at the box office. The filmmaker left the U.S., and made the epic Chinese war film Red Cliff. Red Cliff broke box office records in China, but when it was eventually released in America, in a truncated version that trimmed 140 minutes of runtime, it failed to make a blip.

It’s bittersweet now to look back on Face/Off and realize it was the only truly great film in Woo’s American stopover. Paramount Pictures essentially gave Woo free reign to make Face/Off, enabling him to add as many of his flourishes as he wanted as long as he didn’t go over schedule. Perhaps what affected the rest of Woo’s American films was studio executives not letting Woo be himself; a desire to have Woo slip on another filmmaker’s face and shun his own filmmaking identity. Whatever the case may be, we’ll always have Face/Off, a demented, action-packed, emotional extravaganza that knows exactly what it is.

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