Heavy spoilers here: if you haven't seen the film, skip past the film review!
The action genre is, along with the western, musical and gritty social realism piece, a genre in decline. This is not immediately obvious, but it's very easy to see why far fewer conventional action films are made than, say, teen horror films. Firstly, action films are extremely costly, and take a long time to write, make and release. (For some scale, you can make 10 Screams for the cost of one Speed 2). Secondly, action films are notoriously difficult to make well. Ask any film fan to name a great action film, and chances are that he or she will name at least one out of Die Hard, Speed, Aliens, The Rock, Face/Off or The Matrix. If those six are taken as the epitome of the action genre, it's remarkably easy to see why it's in decline. Aliens and The Matrix are science fiction films, rather than action films, and therefore belong to a different genre. Die Hard, Speed and The Rock are all more or less the same film (Indomitable hero, with the aid of comedy sidekick(s) foils cash-demanding villain and henchmen one by one). Which leaves Face/Off as the sole great original action film of the lot.
The basic plot owes more to the 80s body-swap films at first glance than Woo's Hong Kong films; after supervillain Castor Troy (Cage) is put in a coma by cop Sean Archer (Travolta), it transpires that Troy has planted a bomb that will destroy LA unless his paranoid brother Pollux (Nivola) informs Troy where it is. Archer therefore volunteers to adopt his arch-enemy's identity and go into prison to get the information from Pollux. Unfortunately, Troy comes out of his coma, and assumes Archer's identity. A bald plot synopsis makes the film sound like a comedy, and to some extent it is. There are many, many witty lines, one of the best being when Travolta-as-Troy looks at himself, and refers to his 'ridiculous chin'. Saturday Night Fever suddenly seems a long time ago.
However, there are two main reasons for the film's resounding success. The first is Nicolas Cage. In, arguably, an even better performance than his Oscar-winning turn in Leaving Las Vegas, he manages to run the gamut of emotions from screaming hysteria to silent misery, while managing to single-handedly create one of the screen's great villains in Castor Troy, a drug addicted terrorist with a penchant for Handel, mass destruction and groping female choristers. Yet he is as effective as Archer, especially in a magnificent scene late in the film, when he has to convince his wife Eve (Allen) not to look at his face while he tells her his incredible story. He then moves into a story about their first date together. On paper, this appears unremarkable, but in the film it has a remarkable emotional resonance, aided by Allen's excellent work in a slightly thankless role.
The other reason is, unsurprisingly, John Woo. Woo's career in Hollywood was at a fairly low ebb when the film was made, with one bona fide flop (Hard Target) and one minor hit (Broken Arrow) so far. Yet, aided by a witty script by Mike Webb and Michael Colleary, Woo made a film that is every bit as good as Hard Boiled or The Killer. From the amazingly baroque assassination homage to The Killer in the opening scene, through a massacre counterpointed with the song 'Over the Rainbow', to the epic final confrontation in the church at the end, it's amazing how confident the style is. Woo is one of the very few directors working today who has a signature style, even while talentless hack directors attempt to copy his flourishes. It's rare for an action film to have a hero who experiences self-doubt and fear as explicitly as here, just as it is rare to have a villain who has moments of humanity even while he plots yet more evil schemes. The more pretentious critics have attempted to claim Woo as a Romantic filmmaker in the same way that Douglas Sirk or even Peter Greenaway were Romantic filmmakers, citing his use of colour and baroque music. While there is some evidence for this, it is overstating the case to attempt to claim Woo as an auteur, but it is better to view him as a supremely skilled artist who is able to work within the studio system, albeit with varying amounts of success.
Finally, the film is criticised for what appears to be its sentimental ending, in which Archer, once again played by John Travolta, returns home to his family, bringing home with him his arch-enemy's son, whom he proposes to adopt as a replacement for his own son, who was murdered by Troy in the opening scene. Meanwhile, his wife and daughter look on happily, despite the wife having had repeated sex with her son's murderer in her husband's image, and the daughter having had her 'father' make incestuous advances towards her. If that's a sentimental ending, then Salo's a light romantic comedy.
A comparatively early anamorphic transfer from Paramount, this is generally very pleasing. There is some slight grain throughout, and colours occasionally appear slightly drab, but the overall effect is a pleasing one, with Woo's use of widescreen coming over nicely in this 2.35:1 transfer. The only criticism that is worth making is that the layer change is exceptionally badly chosen, coming literally in the middle of a scene, which is momentarily irritating. It is worth noting that this R1 version is in fact the uncut version, which means that there are a few seconds more violence, as well as some more details of a butterfly knife, which the BBFC decided was likely to be harmful for people to view.
An excellent sound mix, the film's constant blend of gunfire, explosions and surround effects means that all the speakers get a pretty good workout. It's worth sticking chapter 4, with its epic battle between a helicopter and plane and ensuing shoot-out on for a true demonstration of what DVD sound actually is! A Dolby surround option is also included, which is the default option, and needs to be changed from the menu for the film to be watched in 5.1 properly.
Only a trailer sadly, albeit a good one, with a nice circular camera move showing Travolta-as-Archer changing into Cage-as-Archer. I'd personally love to see this film as a Criterion title, given that they've worked on Woo films in the past, complete with commentary, deleted scenes etc; still, it's the film that you're buying the disc for.
As you may have guessed by now, I hold this film in high regard. It's not perfect; it's slightly too long, the score is uninspired and the speedboat chase at the end, while exciting, lacks the visceral impact of the rest of the film. But it's so far above most other films that are made by Hollywood as to render its flaws largely irrelevant. The disc is fine as far as it goes; the lack of extras is a disappointment, but it's not impossible that this may yet be rectified in the future.