At the end of 2016, I can’t help but think about the inevitable death of some of our most favourite actors. What on Earth is the world going to be like when Tom Hanks dies (and will we ever truly appreciate him?) Seeing an internet filled with lazy, gold-bikini studded tributes to Carrie Fisher, I dread to think what will happen once Michael Douglas passes… just lazy references to sex addiction I suppose. Yet Douglas is a hero, a phenomenal actor (including in the much-derided genre of erotic thrillers) and broadly unheralded producer of some extraordinary movies. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975 – Milos Forman) and Starman (1984 – John Carpenter) both exist successfully due to the nurture he gave to these projects.
So too, was Face/Off…
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The history of Hollywood is littered with talent magpied from the rest of the world. When cinema was silent (the great leveller) directors were able to operate universally. F. W. Murnau came to Hollywood in the twenties and directed Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) a sweetly expressionistic exploration of how community and physical space can impact a relationship. Following the outbreak of World War Two, many directors fled to the U.S., anglicised their names, and continued to operate within the studio system. Would the history of British cinema be more widely regarded if Selznick hadn’t tempted Hitchcock in the forties? Actors also were continually repackaged, remade and domesticated, up to and including the great hero of this book, Schwarzenegger himself.
With this in mind, John Woo can seem like another name on a list. But his almost absolute failure to produce anything of high regard in America defies an assumed career projection.
Why is that? Why do we hold Woo’s American films with utter disregard? When his Cantonese films snuck onto western screens they were met with unbridled enthusiasm. A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989), Bullet in the Head (1990) are visceral, imaginative films. They feature balletic gunfights and enveloping first-person camera angles. These films arrived at the start of true gaming culture, as computers sought to immerse the players within the action. There has always been a hint of snobbery when watching ‘foreign’ films – dreadful dialogue is easier to forgive when delivered in an alien tongue. But who, other than (retch) Aaron Sorkin, gives a toss about dialogue? In the late eighties, the goofy humour of his Hong Kong films is well placed alongside the populist comedic action-adventure films riding slipshod over the multiplex (to squeeze in Michael Douglas again, Romancing the Stone (1984 – Robert Zemeckis) is a clear example of this). By the nineties, cinema was moving into a more serious zone.
Ultimately, it comes down to the difference between doves and pigeons.
Hard Target (1993) was Woo’s American debut. It features Jean-Claude Van Damme as a preposterously hairstyled merchant seaman who kicks a lot. Van Damme is ostensibly a cut-price Schwarzenegger rip-off, all muscles and outrageous accents, but Van Damme was a mobile, lithe athlete capable of performing some extraordinary stunts. He is also a talented actor – he injects all his characters with an air of sorrow, as if he knows that they shouldn’t have ended up living with the level of violence that they do. Filmed with a roaming, zooming Scorsese-like camera, it begins as a fairly pedestrian presentation of Van Damme as a samurai-like loner protecting the weak, before moving into a far more entertaining man-hunt (and it is presented as an actual hunt) in the second half.
Woo liked to use slow motion in his fight scenes. This was a regular tool used by action filmmakers since the days of The Wild Bunch (1969 – Sam Peckinpah). It would ramp up tension by stretching out moments of pain or terror to an extreme. Woo would underline the hazy, phantasmagorical nature of these moments by releasing doves on the screen, whose wings would slow to a flutter. But in Hard Target, he releases pigeons. The truth was, despite Woo’s clear status and talent, in Hollywood he was a nobody, and as such he was only being provided with vermin.
Which brings us to John Travolta.
Which is a crass introduction… but few actors sum up the waste of potential than Travolta. A remarkable talent, he has thrown it all away on vain mediocrity not once, but twice. Like rats and pigeons he is a thing once removed from beauty. After becoming a star with some beautiful performances covering up a simmering undercurrent of danger (most purely seen in Saturday Night Fever (1977 – John Badham) and Blow Out (1981 – Brian De Palma)) Travolta fell out of favour. In 1994, Quentin Tarantino chose him to star in Pulp Fiction, as one of his first ‘career resurgence’ actors that would come to populate his oeuvre. Once again, Travolta was a star, and we all remembered why we loved him – he was chilled and sarcastic and he moved like an angel. But even by 1997, the rot was beginning to creep back in.
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There’s a book to be written somewhere about the history of those bad mustard yellow shirts that people seemed to wear in the nineties (maybe that’s what I should be doing instead of this…) They’re as distinct as Cages’ acting style – vulgar. Cage does everything he can in the opening sequence of the film to distract us from his charisma. He serially indecently assaults (and murders) women and children and generally behaves in an appalling manner. His acting style stands in stark contrast to Travolta – Travolta has always been about moments of thoughtfulness and the quiet reflection within everyday life. Here, Travolta, is given the same origin story as The Punisher, but instead of vigilantism, Travolta is quite clearly struggling with mental health issues whilst going about his demanding job.
Why are some heroes given families? Are they an extension of the layer of heteronormative conventionality that is applied to our action stars to distract for the queer lust that permeates these films? It can’t quite be that – parenthood is quite separate and distinct from this lust. Used with the standard lack of imagination that prevails in Hollywood, they are another tool for motivation in the way that women are – the hero must save someone they love, or avenge the death of a loved one. But children represent the inherent contradictions of humanity. In the same way that we can love (and not actually like) someone, children represent both the absolute devotion of one soul to another, and the growing understanding that you have created something that will replace you, and quite possibly hate you. They are every technological advancement – something initially useful that will grow to overthrow you with attitudes and actions that will seem utterly alien to your understanding of the world.
With perhaps a slight sense of knowing wit, Face/Off underlines the essential interchangeability of movie stars. When Brad Pitt appears in World War Z (2013 – Marc Forster) it is easy to imagine almost any other individual playing the role. Fantasy recasting is a popular act of cinemagoing (this will be particularly important when we reach Chapter X). Stars have to give the perception that they are valuable to the success of this movie, that their talent is distinct. Denzel Washington has a type of part that he likes – faithful, noble, the slightest hint of charm – but his utter conviction and ability to command attention means he can seem irreplaceable, when on paper, anyone could have led The Equalizer (2014 – Antoine Fuqua). Tom Cruise has an underappreciated ability to command a frame, even when silent and motionless, that means he seems invaluable. Arnie seems unique, largely because of his bizarre frame and outrageous accent.
Travolta was unable to maintain his success because he could not capitalise upon his natural ability. Cage is such a mercurial talent that he appears idiosyncratic. Despite the interchangeability of the plot, Face/Off weirdly underlines that these two actors are not the same. Cage is a more compelling watch than Travolta, and is cast, despite the opening sequence, in the more conventional part of our hero. How much more exciting would the film be if we could watch him as Castor Troy for the whole film? The inability of the filmmakers to comprehend what the potential appeal of the movie could be is what leads to an air of tone-deafness. This is also seen in the underlying incestuousness of some scenes – it can’t help but be perceived as utterly misguided when it is not commented upon.
The only regard in which we can understand how these two actors can swap roles is that they both seem to be individuals of extraordinary talent, who do not seem to have fully capitalised on it, and in some regards, squandered it on movies that did not engage them and their abilities.
But Face/Off is interesting in its exploration of identity. To a greater or lesser extent, we all wear different faces to cope in life. We are different person at work, at home, with love. We are enormously contradictory and complex individuals. Face/Off takes this an extreme, and turns it into a nightmare scenario – what if the person we are at work (crass, violent, domineering) came home one day? What if those around us began to see through the masks? What if we could not recognise which person we were meant to be? Ultimately Face/Off is frustrating, because it returns to conformity – the safe, suburban family life is seen to be the dream – but the way it hints at these broader questions is effective.
Woo is director with pneumatic energy. He does like to return to the same settings again and again though. Gunfights surrounded by smashed mirrors and dove in darkened spaces was seen in Hard Target. The (admittedly spectacular) final chase sequence and squabble on a beach will be repeated in Mission: Impossible II (2000). This is not a distinct a feature as some have made it out to be – Michael Bay has been reusing the same car sequence from Bad Boys II (2003) for over a decade now – but it became another tool with which Woo could be diminished. He never quite grasped the illusion of innovation that is essential to surviving within Hollywood. Like the heroes of this film, he was unable to define his identity beyond the visual pleasures of his work. Retreat was going to be the only option.
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John went on to direct Mission: Impossible II (2000) where he replaced Brian De Palma’s tricksy identity politics and precise scenes of extraordinary tension with a pummelling Notorious (1946 – Alfred Hitchcock) spin that delivered his usual visual energy. Its pleasures are peripheral. It was the highest grossing film of the year… but still led to no greater respect. He would follow this by reuniting with Nic Cage for Windtalkers (2002).
His (apparently) final Western film is Paycheck (2003). Eschewing his usual visual pyrotechnics but continuing his wronged man riff (Woo is one of the forgotten Hitchcockians), Paycheck is an unpretentious thriller that plays precisely with time. The joy of experiencing it comes in how it uses everyday objects to escape from seemingly impossible circumstances. However, it starred an actor of limited appeal in the form of Ben Affleck. It’s not that Affleck is hateable, it’s just that he has never been unable to escape the awful stench of smugness that surrounds his movies. There is a great disconnect between him and the audience, the one thing that stops him being a star (who trade on a perceived intimacy with the viewing public), and he seems utterly unaware of this. He is an undeniably smart man, but would benefit from knowing that he needs to spend a good few hours in front of a mirror practising how to smile, rather than smirk.
Once again, Woo had cast a pigeon when he needed a dove. Even, the modicum of respect that had existed in Hollywood, and he retreated to China, where he makes epic historical films. They’re very long, and I haven’t seen them.
Nic Cage’s career seems to have gained sentience; it is the living embodiment of his approach to acting. It careers from sense to nonsense, it is simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting, it makes no accommodation for the environment it is being produced within. He will be Oscar nominated and mocked. And because of his innovative approach, he will be misunderstood and ignored and rejected. All pioneers are. But here are eight films from the following years that feature Cage in his manic, compelling glory, and that demonstrate how excitingly fearless an actor he truly is:
- Snake Eyes (1998 – Brian De Palma) – where he is nervy and alive within De Palma’s meticulously long take shots.
- Bringing Out the Dead (1999 – Martin Scorsese) – where he is burnt out and subjugated by a city.
- Adaptation (2002 – Spike Jonze) – where he plays dual roles of barely fictional brothers.
- Matchstick Men (2003 – Ridley Scott) – Scott’s underappreciated black comedy sees Cage isolated and alone and desperate for affection
- The Wicker Man (2006 – Neil LaBute) – will always be ignored when taken in regard to its progenitor, but Cage embodies true terror within the film.
- Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009 – Werner Herzog) – Cage is hypnotising as a man on edge of losing himself to himself.
- Joe (2013 – David Gordon Green) – is an atmospheric drama where Cage always seems on the edge of violence.
- Dog Eat Dog (2016 – Paul Schrader) – Cage shines in Schrader’s manic, imaginative late-period masterpiece.
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Cage and Woo could not be contained by Hollywood. Their energy was too much for most people. It seemed that audiences wanted their heroes to be far more conservative…