Share
Holy Hell! Face/Off Turns 20

Holy Hell! Face/Off Turns 20

It’s a goddamn shame no one shoots for the fences with this level of reckless abandon anymore.

When director John Woo brought his signature HK gun-ballet-action style to the West, it was often with disastrously mixed results. For every Broken Arrow, there was a Paycheck or a Mission: Impossible 2. But 1997’s Face/Off remains the single greatest English language feature in his filmography, not because it’s the least ridiculous of his stateside work, but because it ramps up its absurdity to poetic levels of excess.

The core premise remains the ne-plus-ultra of ‘90s high concept thriller loglines. FBI Special Agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) and mad terrorist super criminal Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) are archrivals, stemming from Troy having inadvertently murdered Archer’s young son. In the typical crime drama format, Archer utilizes all the resources of the FBI to hunt down Troy, who warns Archer that he’s planted a bomb somewhere in the city and only he can disarm it. But then their tussle leads to Troy being knocked into a coma. The only other person who can find the bomb is Troy’s twin brother Pollux (Allesandro Nivola), so, naturally, the Bureau decides to use state-of-the-art, science fiction-level plastic surgery to turn Archer into Troy. That’s right, literally taking Troy’s face off and having Archer wear it as his own.

But Troy wakes from his coma and kills everyone involved with the operation who would know Archer has gone undercover. He forces the doctor to give him Archer’s face, and now our hero is trapped in prison, wearing the face of the man who killed his son while his nemesis is walking around with a gun and a badge and sleeping in the home where his wife and teenage daughter dwell. It’s a decidedly silly extrapolation of the Bruckheimer action paradigm of that decade, but it works so well because of its perfectly cast leads. See, Travolta and Cage are essentially miscast as Archer and Troy.

Watching Travolta as this straight-laced gumshoe and Cage as this manic supervillain works fine for the film’s opening act, but a standard game of cat and mouse with these two would grow tiresome quickly. The real magic comes once they switch faces. Travolta as the lantern-jawed G-man with a sociopath hiding under the skin, luxuriating in the power of law enforcement, is a real spectacle. He’s both terrifying, because we know how unhinged he is, and captivating, due to his thorough unpredictability. Even though Troy is a maniac, wearing his enemy’s skin leads to some of that paternalistic nobility rubbing off on him, notably in scenes where he’s strangely protective of Archer’s daughter Jamie (Dominique Swain).

But Cage is the real delight here. Watching his face contort into a million harrowing shapes of pain when he discovers the predicament he’s in hurts because Cage is far better at selling baby face vulnerability than Travolta, who’s smarmy grin makes him much easier to hate. A whole movie of Travolta struggling to pantomime pathos would have been irritating, but seeing Cage slip off his dastardly caricature and then into this tortured portrayal of a hero who must wear his enemy’s skin is an absolute dramatic powder keg.

It has all the trappings of several different subgenres, from Hitchcock’s wrong man thriller aesthetics, to in-too-deep undercover cop epics, strung along by spy-fi plot machinations and Woo’s singular gift for operatic bombast. The doves, twin golden guns, canted angles and balletic camera movements he employs in most of his films are all present here, but they’re background window dressing. His least effective films are the ones where his penchant for going over the top isn’t in service of anything at all. But here, Face/Off thrives because Woo’s thirst for mythological grandeur is matched by the pulpy ambition of the film’s script. The radical story, brilliant performances and archetypal themes all work in concert, with one of the most enthusiastic conductors at the orchestra’s helm, directing traffic.

It’s a goddamn shame no one shoots for the fences with this level of reckless abandon anymore.

        Leave a Comment