Face/Off (1997) is a product of it’s time, a time when leading Hollywood actors could indulge in a big-budget, violent action film – or to be more blunt, back when a big studio would bankroll such a project.
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Nowadays, every summer blockbuster is family friendly and the better bunch of action films like The Raid (2011) and John Wick (2014) rarely build significant cult reputations via home viewing, not box office.
The plot is a simple concept: top cop and criminal mastermind are forced live in each others shoes, literally, because they’ve swapped faces. Essentially it’s a body swap comedy like Freaky Friday (1976) but with lots of guns, doves and slo-mo.
It was the time of high concept for Hollywood, so it’s no surprise the script began development in 1990 with various stars attached along the way, including Schwarzenegger and Stallone.
Whilst there were in-demand names in front of the camera, there was also one behind it – Hong Kong action director, John Woo. Face/Off is Woo’s third Hollywood film, after Snake-punching, man-hunting Hard Target (1993), and nuke-chasing, stealth bomber thriller Broken Arrow (1996). Both are guilty pleasure B-Movies, whilst both deliver on the action fronts, they lack the character building and pacing of Woo’s HK classics, Hard Boiled (1992) and The Killer (1989).
Face/Off was a return to form for Woo, being a critical and box office smash – Empire gave it 5 stars, hailing it as “a strong claim on the title” on the best action movie ever made. It’s not hard to see what attracted Woo to the project, as it riffs on familiar themes found in his HK films – vengeance, undercover cops, opposing sides working together and honour amongst criminals. Woo injects it all with his trademark balletic action choreography – he’s the man responsible for making everyone dive through the air whilst firing two guns.
The story is set up fairly quickly, FBI agent, Sean Archer (John Travolta) is chasing down arch-enemy and terrorist for hire, Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) because one, he’s a terrorist, and two, he killed Archer’s son, in the films prologue. After an explosive and expensive chase scene including planes, helicopters and a fleet of FBI vehicles, and a shoot out inside a hanger, Troy is kicked into the path of a jet engine and knocked into a coma – psst, typical.
Amongst the wreckage the FBI discover incredibly high detailed plans for a chemical bomb that Troy has planted somewhere in LA. For plot convenience, thankfully it’s a bomb with the longest countdown timer ever – something like 2 weeks. To uncover the whereabouts of this bomb, Sean Archer is sent undercover as Troy, by surgically swapping his face with the comatose Troy. But wait, besides their faces, don’t Cage and Travolta have different builds? Fear not, these top secret surgeons have lasers and shit.
So Archer becomes Troy, and is sent to prison to extract the bomb location from Castor’s brother, Pollux. Then Troy wakes up and after some trademark hysterics from Cage, he becomes Archer and assumes his life as FBI agent, father and husband to a teenage dream daughter and Joan Allen as his wife.
Don’t get me wrong, Joan Allen is a great character actor, but I think she’s totally miscast as the wife that Troy (as Archer) lusts after. It’s an interesting move on Woo’s behalf, wanting to cast someone talented, rather than eye candy.
Archer (as Troy) escapes super prison, and takes up Troy’s glamourous criminal life of crazy drugs (leading to some more classic Cage Crazy), guns and designer warehouse spaces. Following an impressive gunfight played out to the sounds of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, we quickly get the finale involving even more stand-offs, gun battles and an amazing boat chase, let down only momentarily by some shockingly obvious stuntmen sporting much more hair than either of the starring cast.
Does it still hold up? Hmm, mostly. The leads are clearly having fun in their dual roles – Cage brings his trademark craziness as Troy in the opening scenes and genuine pathos as Archer – the scene where he reveals himself to his wife is a highlight. Part of me wishes he got to play the bad guy for longer. Meanwhile Travolta delivers some weary determination (i.e grumpy) as Archer and then ranks up the ham/camp factor to eleven as Troy – whilst it’s fun to see him attempt to mimic Cage, it’s not a huge progression on his villain in Broken Arrow.
The script is little bit uneven – the prologue features Troy as a calm collected (and mustachioed) assassin, yet in the next scenes he’s a raving loon, head banging to gospel, groping anything in a skirt and ranting he doesn’t give a fuck – quite a character arc.
After the explosive opening, it feels like we’re in prison or with Archer’s grief stricken family for a long time before the bullets fly again- to allow for more character building maybe? However once the prison escape takes place, the film pretty much ramps it up to the finale.
Everyone, (except probably poor Joan Allen) seems to be having fun in this movie, whether it’s Alessandro Nivola as Troy’s brother Pollux, Nick Cassavetes’ charismatic arms dealer, Dietrich or Gina Gershon as Troy’s love interest, who isn’t afraid to hold her own with a semi-automatic. Yes, these people are murderers, scumbags, but hey, they’re fun to be around.
Whilst such an absurd premise (especially in a modern day setting), Woo tackles the film with gusto and his choice to use dramatic actors over established action stars (Con Air came out later that summer) works for the most part, attempting to add some depth to the craziness of it all.
Sadly, for Woo, this marks a career high for his Hollywood output, after this we were given the over-indulgent Mission Impossible 2 (2000) (though I class as a guilty pleasure), reuniting with Cage on WW2 actioner Windtalkers (2002) and the forgettable Paycheck (2003) – where Ben Affleck forgets stuff in the future. Woo’s since returned home, favouring historical epics over bullet ballets, however he’s kept his flair for stylish action – check out Red Cliff (2008), if you have time (beware, it’s a long one).
It’s a shame this type of film is a rarity these days but with one of 2016’s biggest surprise hits being the violent and foul mouthed Deadpool, maybe there’s hope for the return of the more adult blockbuster after all.
Like many of the films we focus on, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we get a remake in the next few years – but who would be cast as the leads?
Let us know in the comments.
MVP: Travolta (when played by Cage)
ALTERNATE TITLE: FaceSwap: The Movie
FUN FACT: In 1995 John Woo was asked to direct Goldeneye but politely turned it down to do Face/Off instead!
COULDA, SHOULDA: Originally developed to star (producer) Michael Douglas vs Harrison Ford.