It's Like Looking in a Mirror, Only Not: Face/Off at 20
Given how internet critics, bloggers, and Film Twitter currently talk about the two stars, it’s rather hard to overstate just how hot the careers of John Travolta and Nicolas Cage were at the time they starred in John Woo’s 1997 sci-fi/actioner Face/Off (a title Woo himself originally fought against, but realized that, without the slash in the middle, it might be confused for a hockey movie).
Travolta was still enjoying his career resurgence from 1994’s Pulp Fiction, and had worked with Woo the year prior to Face/Off in Broken Arrow. Cage was three years removed from an Oscar win for Leaving Las Vegas, and came off the one-two punch of high-velocity action films The Rock and Con Air, firmly establishing his action bona fides thanks to Bruckheimer and Michael Bay.
Both men were well-known for bringing a certain…energy, to their performances. Both had fair accusations of chewing scenery lobbed at them before Face/Off. But John Woo didn’t meet a concept he couldn’t overdo, and make audiences love him for overdoing. He brought that eye for bringing the over-the-top out of performers, action set pieces, and plotting to this film. And, it cannot be said enough, here: John Woo got shit done.
No piece of scenery, no plot contrivance, no shot that could be slow-motion, was safe. Everything in Face/Off is played big, and broad, and is a damn celebration of visual style and well-orchestrated destruction. And yeah, they used the jump boots from the Super Mario Bros. movie in the prison scene, but you have to save money somewhere when you destroy an actual charter jet just to get a shot (using thirteen cameras simultaneous, no less). Face/Off is a film where two simply great actors got to mimic each other and overdo it entirely because it was in the script, and that script follows suit at every possible turn.
The best action scene in the movie, a fight on and between two speedboats, was for a brief time the gold standard for vehicle-based fight scenes (until The Matrix Reloaded reset the clock on that one, and I will fight you if you disagree). The sense of geography, the dynamic shifts in advantage between the two leads, and the nail-biting close calls under and around the various obstacles in the Los Angeles-set bay environment coalesce into a thrilling balletic push-pull that lets the valve off the tension the movie has led toward. It’s simply perfect.
Which makes it even more shocking when you consider it was originally meant for Woo’s earlier film, Hard Boiled, but cut from the script for budgetary reasons. Admittedly, when you think about it, the dock being right there doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense. But when the sequence flows so seamlessly into it, you really just have to go along for the ride John Woo put together for you.
And what a ride it turns out to be, for the first-time viewer. Cage and Travolta play characters who, through the then-futuristic magic of 3D printing and plastic surgery, trade faces, body types and voices. So, you wind up with Cage-playing-Travolta-playing-Cage, and Travolta-playing-Cage-playing-Travolta. And it makes perfect sense within the film. The reason for that is that the two leads spent weeks working out verbal cadences and physical tics that the other could mimic, to properly sell the face-switching to the audience. Even at the height of over-the-top, these two took their craft deadly seriously, and it pays off a hundredfold.
That’s because Woo and the script know how to present it such that we’re right along with Sean Archer in prison, meeting up with Castor Troy’s old cohorts who treat him as their friend, and we get just as giddy with Castor Troy, greeted at Archer’s home as the man of the house. Each man upends his rival’s life as they settle into their surroundings, taking advantage of opportunities to improve their respective situations as they arise—Archer-as-Troy assembles a ragtag crew of supporters and backup; Troy-as-Archer runs roughshod over Archer’s professional life while running down the man with his face who killed his brother.
The production certainly saved no money on character actors for the cast—everyone in this movie is someone you’d recognize from something else: Chris Bauer, Thomas Jane (okay, maybe not him in this movie, he’s got long hair and nerd glasses), CCH Pounder, Delroy Lindo, Colm Feore, Dominique Swain, Gina Gershon, Joan Allen, John Carroll Lynch, and Harve Presnell all have moments to truly shine in this movie. The masterful part of it all is that not one of those moments slows down the pace of this '90s classic in the least. The dizzying lunacy of a federal agent’s dissociation over the transplantation of his sworn enemy’s face onto his own body just works, and that’s why Face/Off is a staple of not only '90s action, but action cinema overall. It’s not to be missed.