It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas: legendary Hong Kong director John Woo has a new film coming out in December – Silent Night – and any movie from the GOAT of action flicks is a real gift. So why not revisit the movie that is arguably the most popular, and inarguably the most bonkers, of his career?
Face/Off sees John Travolta as FBI agent Sean Archer, who is tracking the notorious terrorist Castor Troy, played by Nicolas Cage. But when Troy tries to kill him and kills Archer’s son instead, Archer becomes consumed by revenge. Six years later, he catches up to Castor and in the ensuing chaos puts him in a coma. But Castor has planted a huge bomb in downtown LA and the only possible way for Archer to discover the location … is, of course, face transplant surgery.
Thanks to a Special Ops plastic surgeon, Archer borrows Troy’s face and assumes his identity to obtain the bomb’s location from the only person who knows where it is: Troy’s brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola). Things do not go to plan because, in a world where face swapping is possible, people can also wake from a coma like it was a restful afternoon nap – which is precisely what Troy does, before stealing Archer’s face.
Free from the notoriety that international terrorism brings, Castor seems to somewhat enjoy Archer’s life, despite the suburban trappings, and subverting the FBI from within. His pragmatic approach to change is simply to deal with the situation at hand, making inroads with Archer’s family and in some ways living life better than his sworn enemy ever did. Archer, on the other hand, becomes increasingly isolated and unhinged while living as the man who destroyed his family.
Woo built his reputation with an incredible filmography that includes straight-up masterpieces such as The Killer and Hard Boiled, and inspired an entire action movie subgenre (“heroic bloodshed”). He flexed his muscles in Hollywood with 1996’s under-appreciated Broken Arrow and the utterly sublime Hard Target. But Face/Off is a greatest hits of his trademark style. It’s full to bursting with excessive slow-mo, flustered birds, double gun shootouts and many, many explosions. Wasn’t it Chekhov who said, “If there’s a flammable gas canister in the first act, it must explode behind Nicolas Cage?”
Woo is also blessed with two lead actors unfamiliar with the concept of restraint. Face/Off contains one of the classic Cage performances, whether he’s dressed as a priest and headbanging to a choir, or going completely off his rocker in a prison brawl. Cage embraces face pulling and boggle-eyed stares; it’s hard not to believe he’s teetering on the edge of sanity. And we must not forget Travolta, who gives as good as he gets in a performance that matches Cage for wild intensity and truly off-kilter one-liners.
“Subtle” is not a word often used in relation to Cage, Travolta, Woo or Face/Off, but such big performances mean it’s easy to overlook how all this absurdity is actually somewhat believable. There’s not one second where it feels as though Nicolas Cage is doing a John Travolta parody, or vice versa. Therein lies the key to Face/Off: absolute conviction.
Face/Off is a riot of action excess and stunt spectacle. In one particularly impressive shootout that has its origins in a scene from Hard Boiled, Somewhere Over the Rainbow plays through a child’s headphones as he witnesses the carnage of an FBI raid, the soothing music providing a brutal counterpoint to the hail of bullets pulping both gangsters and Swat teams as they rappel from the ceiling.
It all culminates in classic Woo fashion. The final showdown takes place in a church. There are even more slow-motion gunfights, a six-way standoff and a speedboat chase to cap it all off. If Woo has ever heard the phrase “less is more”, Face/Off suggests he never took it to heart. It is wonderful insanity, and one of the greatest, over-the-top action movies of the 1990s.