You won’t find a bigger John Woo apologist than me. I legitimately think the Hong Kong action maestro’s Hard-Boiled is one of the top 10 films ever made, I enjoy the widely-loathed Once a Thief and A Better Tomorrow II a great deal, and I desperately wish that his forgotten film Bullet in the Head would receive a DVD release in the U.S. But even I can offer no reasonable defense of 1997’s Face/Off. It may be the most fun of Woo’s American films, but only because it is so completely ludicrous that it’s impossible not to enjoy.
This is your classic high-concept action film: Castor Troy (played at the start of the film by Nicholas Cage) is a sex-and-drug-crazed terrorist psychopath, and Sean Archer (John Travolta) is the tireless cop who’s chasing him. Eventually a reason is contrived for Troy and Archer to trade faces in order to fight each other, because Woo’s signature “heroic bloodshed” style just doesn’t work without the audience being reminded that cop and killer are not so different!
Now, if you’ve never seen the film (and even if you have) your first response to that premise might be, “What the hell? Travolta and Cage do not look one iota alike!”* But this is the sort of film where one hand-wavey line of dialogue serves to explain such things – the face-trading process might as well be explained by “something something SCIENCE!” – so that we can be whisked off to the next action sequence. Like many action movies in the late ’90s (including two other Cage films, The Rock and Con Air), Face/Off openly mocks the idea that it needs to explain itself at all. It knows what we came here to see.
In fact, the screenplay by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary** is so mocking that it reminded me of another ’90s hit, Scream. At the beginning of the film Archer openly insults the face-trading plan, as though he, like the audience, is privy to the knowledge that everything is about to go horribly wrong. While a lot of action movies have heroes who can’t run their own love lives, this is the only one that suggests the villain would make a better husband and father for the hero’s family than the hero would. B-movie mockery king Joe Bob Briggs is in the film as a doctor who administers electric shock treatments, and that does not seem to be a coincidence.
That’s what makes Face/Off especially crazy: its screenplay is mocking just about every action film made in the preceding ten years, but Woo directs the film as though he is not in on the joke. This is Woo’s first American film where he had complete creative control, and he stages every scene with the same super-serious mien that The Killer had. The climactic gun battle starts off in in a church, and despite Travolta’s dialogue mocking the obvious symbolism, it’s still drenched in Catholic melodrama. And doves.
That’s not to say that Face/Off isn’t a technical masterpiece. Woo’s style is to get so much “coverage” (shots of the same scene from multiple angles) that his films look like they cost twice as much as they actually did. The film was nominated for an Oscar in sound editing, and the climactic boat chase gained a lot of notoriety within the business – according to legend it was shot in the Los Angeles Harbor over the course of just two days. In short, John Woo has a pretty damn good idea of how to shoot an action scene. It’s the drama that goes to some weird places.
Face/Off does have some legitimately affecting serious scenes. Almost every scene with Archer’s longtime friend Tito (Robert Wisdom, a.k.a. Bunny from The Wire) is good. When Archer-as-Troy persuades Archer’s wife (Joan Allen) of his true identity by telling the story of their first date, that’s even better. But most of this film’s attempts at seriousness are either undercut by the movie’s own sarcastic dialogue, or executed with Mystery Science Theater 3000-level melodrama. In fact I would MST3K just about every shot of this film if I were in company that wouldn’t get annoyed with my constant blabbing.
And, as with most films of the last 15 years that are deserving of the MST3K treatment, Nicholas Cage is a big part of the reason. He’s so wildly hypersexed as Troy, and practically falling apart at the seams as Archer, that he seems to be freaking out in one way or another in every scene. His “I’m on drugs!” acting in the middle of the film is so bizarre that it’s hard to fathom what he was thinking. One would be perfectly justified in wondering if this film drove him insane, thus paving the way for The Wicker Man and all of the other wild performances which became his hallmark in the early 2000s.
With Travolta, he at least gets credit for knowing what Woo wants (having played the villain in Broken Arrow) while maintaining his wise-ass facade at the same time. For most of the film, while Cage is playing the heroic and deadly serious Archer, Travolta is the only one who seems to be in on the parody, which means he is the one making the movie fun. He just seems to be taking himself much less seriously than everyone else in the film – you don’t see Cage making any jokes about “this nose, this hair, this ridiculous chin.”
I haven’t even touched upon this film’s easy ignorance of anything resembling police procedure or human rights, or Gina Gershon’s performance as a love interest who likes to dabble in shooting cops, or whatever the hell Alessandro Nivola thinks he’s doing as Castor Troy’s brother Pollux, or the fact that two brothers in this movie have the Greek-mythology names “Castor” and “Pollux”… Face/Off is simply a hot mess of serious ideas, parodies of serious ideas, and things which cannot determine whether they’re serious or parody. In the hands of any lesser director it would not hold together; in the hands of John Woo it may be hobbled by melodrama and covered in doves’ droppings, but at least it’s a good time.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*I think that this section of Face/Off’s Wikipedia page, which has a lot of “citation required” notes, is just an inside joke where a Wiki editor tried to think of more mismatched pairings of actors than Travolta and Cage.
**A screenwriting team which sold a lot of screenplays that never got produced. Their next-highest-profile credit that actually got made is probably Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.