Face/Off, and six more movies


Friday, Jan. 6, 2023

  Face/Off (1997)

A good action movie ought to be ridiculous. Ideally, you should be laughing as people get shot and shit blows up, because you know it's all so impossible. But at the same time, you should be thrilled and on the edge of your seat, wondering what's next.

By that measure, or just about any, Face/Off is the perfect action movie.

John Woo brings the operatic action of his Asian movies to America, and it's has all his elements — the slow-motion walking, the acrobatics, the bullet ballets, the overacting and dramatic pauses. And it's a blast, or more accurately an extended series of blasts.

The story? Here comes ridiculous, by the metric ton.

Hit man Castor Troy (Nic Cage) is trying to kill supercop Sean Archer (John Travolta), so he snipers him in the back at an amusement park. The bullet passes clean through Archer's body, though, killing his young son on a merry-go-round. For a brief moment, Cage shows grief on Troy's face — killing the kid was an accident. And even more frustrating for evil Troy, Archer survives, and makes apprehending Troy his life's work.

Then comes a breakthrough in modern medical science, and a top secret experiment. Troy is captured but comatose, so let's do the world's first face transplant, putting good guy Archer's face on Troy's head and body. And it works, allowing Archer as Troy to go deep undercover. Ah, but then the faceless Troy wakes up and takes control of the clinic, demanding Archer's face be installed on his head.

So now Troy has Archer's face and Archer has Troy's. The actors Cage and Travolta enjoy mimicking each others' mannerisms. We have reached Peak Ridiculous, and Woo makes it — well, not quite believable, because you're not an idiot, but he makes it enjoyable.

Memorable moments include the prison break, the multi-level Mexican standoff in a church, a face lick, the wind tunnel, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and flying movie stars as the boat explodes. But wait, there's more. 

As improbable as it seems, the film somehow builds an emotional resonance into this ridiculous, impossible, and thrilling story. It has a hundred plot holes and illogical leaps, but by the end you'll not only give a damn, you might get teary-eyed.

Verdict: BIG YES.

— — —

Here are some other movies I've been watching, and none today are from the 21st century, because this time and place sucks.

— — —

Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969)

Cybernetics whiz Charles Forbin has built a completely automated national defense computer called Colossus, to organize and analyze American and Soviet military arsenals and deployments. He and his team have input everything the computer needs to know, and given it live-feed access to information from everywhere, so it'll be able to forestall any tricks those pesky Russkies come up with. Colossus will eliminate guess work, bad intelligence, human hesitation, doubt, guilt — it'll be, as the President says, "the perfect defense system." What could possibly go wrong? 

To you and me, the answer is instantly obvious, probably because we've seen 2001 and WarGames and other movies like Colossus: The Forbin Project. Maybe movies like this saved us from their own future.

"The object in constructing me was to prevent war. This object is attained. I will not permit war. It is wasteful and pointless. An invariable rule of humanity is that man is his own worst enemy. Under me, this rule will change, for I will restrain man."

Almost as soon as it's plugged in and switched on, yup, Colossus takes over, and Dr Forbin needs to negotiate against his invention in order to regain control. It's not easy, though, to outsmart a computer that's been programmed to know everything.

Amusingly, Colossus doesn't want Forbin talking to other scientists any more, so part of his subterfuge involves convincing the computer that human men must have time alone with a lover four nights a week, and that the world's second smartest cybernetics whiz (a beautiful woman, of course) is his lover. Will they boink to save the world?

The movie's tech is laughably quaint, but that's an unavoidable problem in 50-year-old sci-fi about high-tech. If you can get past that, the story holds up well, especially with the always-competent Joseph Sargent (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) directing.

The egghead who built Colossus is Dr Charles Forbin, and he's oddly played by soap opera superstar Eric Braeden. No matter what happens, Forbin remains unflappable, cool and calm. He smiles and quips and seems more like a charming talk show host — Joey Bishop, perhaps — than a man whose invention is imperiling the world. He never really seems worried, and raises his voice only once. It's kinda like he's a computer, too.

Braeden's not bad enough to do much damage to the movie, though, and all the data I've collected from sources world-wide indicates that you ought to see Colossus if you haven't.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Dead Again (1991)

After his early-career big hit with Henry V, Kenneth Branagh came to America, brought his then-wife Emma Thompson, and made this time-tripping murder mystery.

She has amnesia, and a past life that's knocking her head in this life, and he's a private dick who, in his previous life, was her jealous lover and maybe killer. It's a melodramatic mystery-thriller full of impossible plot holes, not even counting reincarnation. But it's likable and has a few genuine goosebump moments.

Branagh pulls off a perfect American accent, and, in the past-life sequences, a believable German accent, too. Derek Jacobi is a smile, playing the hypnotist (and antiques dealer) who connects Branagh and Thompson's past and future lives. Robin Williams plays a de-licensed psychiatrist who now works in a meat shop.

The movie is cotton candy, with a few murders mixed in.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Flash Gordon (1980)

It's been a long time since I've seen any of the original Flash Gordon movie serials, so I can't comment on how or whether this reboot compares, but it's mighty lightweight sci-fi. Which wouldn't be a problem if they'd gone for comedy, but there are also no laughs.

Flash is a pro football jock who crash lands a plane, gets forced into a rocket ship, and finds himself on the plant Mongo. Everything that happens after that (and before that) is dreadfully dull, but things spark a little when Max Von Sydow is on-screen as the exaggerated space villain Ming the Merciless.

The name of the show, though, is Flash Gordon. He's played by someone named Sam J. Jones, who's handsome and muscular but you can almost hear his head echo when he speaks. He reminds me of Rocky in Rocky Horror, only with less charisma and a lower IQ. He's certainly among the worst casting mistakes ever in a big budget movie. Was he some executive's son-in-law?

And there's a big musical mistake, too. Queen wrote and performed an album's worth of music for this, and while it's far from the band's best work, it's enjoyable. Yet almost none of it's in the movie.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (1982)

The Stains are a punk band made up of teenage girls, fronted by Corinne "Third-Degree" Burns (Diane Lane), along with her sister and cousin (a very young Laura Dern).

The film follows their rise, starting as the warm-up act for an Alice Cooperesque has-been band. Corinne is angry at the world, and eventually her anger remakes the band into a feminist statement. Does she mean it, though, or is it only a ploy to get attention and sell tickets?

"Listen, you ugly old man! I hate you, I hate your poxy music, I hate everything about you!"

I kinda hated the music too, but I'm old, what do I know from punk? There is a huge array of genuine rock'n'roll talent here. The performers in other bands are portrayed by Fee Waybill of the Tubes, Paul Simonon from the Clash, and Paul Cook and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, who also wrote one of the Stains' songs for the movie. Behind the camera is director Lou Adler, who's the 'A' in A&M Records (see comments). All this eluded me watching the movie, of course, and I learned it only from Googling around afterwards.

The script is by Nancy Dowd (Coming Home, Slap Shot), or was, but it was rewritten so much that she disowned it and it's credited to a pseudonym. I'm guessing she wanted to make more of a feminist statement here, but plenty remains.

After a test screening bombed, the movie was never released in theaters, and the VHS release is said to have been a key inspiration for chick rockers Bikini Kill and Courtney Love. When the film started circulating in art houses and midnight shows in the 1990s, the poster's tag line was, "The original riot grrrl movie."

So after all that, is it worth seeing? Yeah, this movie mildly rocks.

I liked the backstage politics, with the punkers dissing the big star, and then the young punkers — the Stains — dissing their elder punkers.

I liked to extreme shallowness of the TV reporters, covering the rise of the Stains with palpable cynicism and disdain.

And I liked Corinne's stoic rage and pessimism.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Naked Prey (1965)

Cornell Wilde produced, directs, and stars as "Man" in what starts as a fairly disgusting big-budget visit to Africa. We're on a safari, killing elephants and being generally awful white people, but I stuck with it because Wilde, as the guide, tells the safari jerk not to treat the natives with such rudeness. "You're endangering the whole safari," he pleads.

OK — now show me some serious comeuppance, please.

And there's comeuppance up up and away, but still, the gist of the story is that "Man" (African men can't be men?) single-handedly overcomes all the natives, frees the slaves, and survives and thrives alone on the savanna. I am skeptical of all this, and grew tired of seeing "Man" kill black people.

As a thriller it works, and it's probably better if you can shut your mind and morality off. Filmed in Africa, with special thanks to the South African apartheid government, but with surprisingly little of the expected lovely scenery.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Pi (1998)

Maximillian Cohen is a mathematician who believes numbers can solve every mystery of life. The answers to everything, at least in the movie, are supposed to be hidden in the endless progression of infinite numbers, never repeating, after the decimal in pi. 

Max is not well, suffers clusterbomb headaches and other ailments, and he's not an outgoing guy, preferring to spend his entire life in his dumpy apartment that looks like something from Eraserhead. Actually, the whole movie seems very much inspired by that classic David Lynch film, but if you need inspiration why not look to the best?

Like Eraserhead, it's in high-contrast black-and-white, with an oppressive feel. No lady in the radiator, though. No laughs at all.

This flick was Darren Aronofsky's calling card, and he's gone on to make several acclaimed films, none of which I've seen except The Wrestler, which underwhelmed me.

To add to the movie's everything's-closing-in-on-you feel, the story has the quiet loner Maximillian being constantly interrupted. People keep knocking at his door unexpectedly. His phone rings a lot, and it's not friends calling, it's always people trying to sell him stuff or arrange an interview. Strangers keep stopping him on the sidewalk.

Toward the end there's a long sequence where his phone rings and rings and rings for ten minutes, while other stuff is going on. A phone endlessly ringing is not the most annoying sound in modern life, but it's in the top ten, so that's ten minutes of solid annoyance.

The flick has an intriguing, well-developed premise, with lots of gross-out sequences, and a pretty good ending. There's a lot of mathematical speak here, but it must've been dumbed down for people like me, because I followed the story despite knowing nothing much about math beyond 1+1=2. 

I should've loved this, and could've, but it's awfully hard to recommend a movie with so much annoyance built into it. Everyone knocking and ringing and always interrupting Max was as intensely aggravating to me as it was to him.

Also, the plot and dialogue has a whole lot of Jewish mumbo-jumbo which keeps bringing God and the Torah into the plot. Almost no movies are improved by God, not even The Ten Commandments.

And also, will someone please answer the damned phone?

Verdict: NO.

— — —

Coming attractions: 

• Brief Encounter (1945)
• Forty Guns (1957)
• Harlan County USA (1976)
• Little Darlings (1980)
• Pin (1988)
• Rescue Dawn (2006)
• Runaway Train (1985)


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twentyplex, you're missing out.

— — —

Find a movie
DVDpublic librarystreaming

If you can't find a movie I've reviewed,
or if you have any recommendations,
please drop me a note
— — —
Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. I try to make these reviews spoiler-free, but sometimes screw up, sorry. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   



  1. Some good predecessors to Face/Off are Face of Another (1966) Suture (1993) Eyes Without a Face (1960) and the more recent The Skin I Live In (2011). I'm sure there are others. Few are as as entertaining as the Woo, though.

    My favorite "computer takes over the world" is Her (2013) because it's the most subtle, and I think correctly predicts that the submission to the machines will take place in our heads, and will be entirely voluntary, and we may not even know it when it happens.

    Flash Gordon is amazing to look at and listen to. Is it good? Nah, but it has Ornella Muti in a catsuit tied to a torture table. I'm in.

    I hate Pi, and dislike all of Aronofsky's films. He's as ham-fisted as Sam Fuller or Oliver Stone.

    Coming Attractions:

    Adore Brief Encounter, much more than Lean's more "epic" films (never cared at all for Lawrence, River Kwai, etc.) One of the great almost-had-an-affair/unrequited love films, along with In The Mood For Love, Remains of the Day, House of Mirth (highest recommendation), that ilk. (Also Kieslowski's A Short Film About Love, though really you should see the entire Dekalog series it's a part of).

    Pin is great but I can never find anyone who has actually seen it.

    1. Hey, I've seen 3 out of 4 -- Face of Another, Suture, and Eyes Without a Face, but not The Skin I Live In. Usually your recommendations are unknown to me, so I am proud of me!

      Her, goes on the list.

  2. Boy, I swear we saw Pi together in the theater, but maybe it was me alone, or with Shawna. I liked it, but less than I wanted to. I was a pretentious 25-year-old, so I give myself a pass.

    1. It's possible. I do vaguely remember seeing it in a theater, but I'd forgotten whether I liked it.

  3. Claude R:

    >My favorite "computer takes over the world" is Her (2013)

    Boy, I loved that movie too. Spike Jonze made three movies that, IMO, were the best in their year of release - Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Her. Too bad about the Jackass stuff, I guess. But even that has its place, and has made me laugh.

    1. Agreed. Adaptation is in my top 25 of all time, maybe. Chris Cooper's performance is sublime.

      The Jackass stuff almost literally hurts to watch, but it can be very funny:


      Along the same lines as Tom Green:



      Apparently this predates them all, but I have yet to watch it:


    2. I wouldn't complain about the Jackass stuff — everyone needs a hobby — but the man makes such terrific movies, and he hasn't made one since Her.

      Having completely wasted my own life, of course, who am I to complain?

    3. He's probably the best director who is also heir to a multi-billion dollar fortune, who ever lived.

    4. Well, I didn't know he was rich, and that's annoying. No doubt the dude has talent, but lots of people with talent never get a chance, because they don't have the money to get into the game.

    5. Claude Reigns, Yes I'm BitterJanuary 7, 2023 at 6:54 PM

      Uh-yep, it colors my view of all arts as I get older and farther away from any personal success I thought was possible.

      At least when I read PK Dick I know he had to LITERALLY eat dog food, and never attended The Iowa Writers Workshop and basically lived in poverty until the last few years of his life... which was too late to do him any good at that point.

      It's all about who you know, and who you blow.

    6. I don't know anyone, and I'd be willing to blow but nobody ever asks.

    7. Claude "Lucky" ReignsJanuary 7, 2023 at 10:09 PM

      Mega Millions is up to 1.1 billion, Powerball is gonna be 300 million...

      Do I eat this week, or buy some hot tickets?

    8. Eating is fundamental. I'd go with eating.

    9. If I win, you get NOTHING!

  4. Whatever resource you used that said Lou Adler was the A in A&M Records is incorrect. The A in A&M was Herb Alpert and the M was Jerry Moss. Lou Adler had his own impressive career.

    1. Ah, poopydoopy, I hate making screwups like that. Thanks, will fix.

      I read it at a mainstream source, too, and I remember thinking, really? I ought to doublecheck that, but nah, they wouldn't get something like that wrong..."

  5. I guess I'm going to have to see Her now, based on all the recommendations. I enjoyed The Forbin Project immensely when I first saw it on TV back in the 70s, and out of curiosity picked it up a half dozen years ago and gave it a re-watch. Agree that surprisingly it does still stand up (tech notwithstanding), but you left out the important plot point where Colossus and its Russian counterpart learn of each other and demand to be connected under penalty of humanitys total nuclear annihilation. (Because of course, both systems were put in charge of their respective country's arsenals.) And while a lot of the highlights of the film have faded from memory, Forbin's "Never," response to Colossus at the end of the film was chilling and has stayed with me to this day.

    And Doug, you really need to seek out Personal Services directed by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame and starring the indominatable Julie Waters.

    1. I try to leave out a lot, just give the slightest whiff of what a movie's about and say whether it sucked or not. Colossus definitely does not suck, and I think it was you who nudged me toward seeing it — thanks.

      Personal Services was excellent, too. Saw it a month or so ago. :)


🚨🚨 Click here if you have problems posting a comment. 🚨🚨