‘Face/Off’ is Still Wonderfully Bonkers – Mars’ Retro Roast
Happy 25th birthday to Face/Off! I can’t say anything really disparaging about this movie, so this is a lovefest rather than a roast.
I’m a Nic Cage fan (even of his worst movies) as you’ve likely noticed over the last couple of years. In this (one of his top-rated movies) he gets to pretend he’s John Travolta… and Travolta gets to pretend he’s Cage.
In John Woo‘s action thriller FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) is hell-bent on bringing terrorist Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) to justice after he kills his son. When he finally tracks him down Troy gets into an accident and is assumed dead. In order to track down a bomb that Troy has placed, Archer puts on Troy’s face. Troy (not dead) then puts on Archer’s face and the rest of the insanity begins.
It’s a classic action/revenge story with a big twist. A stupid twist. But a twist, nonetheless. The whole movie doesn’t care how dumb the twist is or that it has flaws, which is what makes it great.
There’s a flashback intro, but it’s bad. So, we open on our violent and constantly horny antagonist Castor Troy (in priest garb) placing a bomb in the LA Convention Center to kill a group of judges. We learn that Troy really likes touching butts. He touches more butts throughout the movie. This meme-able face occurs.
After accomplishing this mission, Troy retrieves his golden guns (he’s a flashy terrorist), drugs, and chiclets and attempts to escape from the country on a private jet. It turns out it has an undercover FBI agent on it. The action that comes after that reveal is spectacular (which is the case though the entire movie). There are military vehicles, a jet careens into a hanger, and a spark filled shoot-out (the first of many). Multiple FBI agents are killed. Troy’s crew is captured.
The fight culminates in the Archer and Troy pointing guns at each other while exchanging some not-so-pleasantries. In the end, Troy trips into the exhaust of the wrecked plane, is flung into a grate, and “dies.” This is the last time we see Cage being Cage with Cage’s face.
Archer (who is a boy scout) goes back to work and discovers that there’s a bomb out there. He lets his anger swell as his coworkers celebrate Troy’s death, then lets it out during multiple interrogations of Troy’s known accomplices (who all share Troy’s sense of ’90s club wear fashion). When that doesn’t pan out he starts to consider an offer from the special ops lab: a new way to go undercover. A way to stop the bomb. A way to stop Castor Troy.
Wear his face.
In Face/Off You Take the Terrorist’s Face Off, and You Shake It All About
You can tell it’s 1997 because both Cage and Travolta have chest hair.
The idea of face transplants wasn’t science fiction in 1997. Experiments were done in the 1940s and the first successful face replant was done in 1994. A surgery that no doubt influenced Woo and the screenwriters.
Face/Off‘s face swap uses lasers and a vacuform mask that helps it fit on the musculature. No, they don’t care about body composition, scars, or how the bones in your skull shape your face. None of that matters. It doesn’t. It works in the universe they’ve created and thanks to some superb prosthetics and makeup. The swap scene is *chef’s kiss*
Then we follow Archer (played by Nic Cage) to a black site prison that uses magnetic boots to control the prisoners (why not?). Troy’s brother is being housed there after being apprehended. He doesn’t exactly pass as Troy until he lets some of his anger out on other inmates. This scene has led to so many memes of Cage acting like Travolta acting like Cage. Anyway, he convinces Troy’s brother after that and some questions. He gives him the location of the bomb.
Back in the lab, Troy has managed to wake from his brain-dead coma and make a decipherable phone call without a face or lips. We get small glimpses of his skinless skull as he tells the doctor to put Archer’s face on his head. Again: fantastic prosthetics and makeup. Now we have Troy (played by Travolta) with Archer’s face. No one notices that Archer is 3″ shorter and slimmer and Troy is 3″ taller and broader. But, whatever.
They meet as Archer tries to leave the prison and pass on the bomb’s location. Troy has all the power, Archer is stuck in prison without his own face.
You Put the FBI Agent’s Face On and You Do the Hokey-Pokey
Troy takes on Archer’s face and life with gusto. He becomes a national hero by defusing his own bomb (no one really questions how he does it). His new swinging attitude makes an impression on Archer’s family and coworkers. He’s not as good at acting as Archer, so his mannerisms and desires show up when he’s not thinking about it. And Travolta isn’t as good at pretending to be Cage as Cage is at pretending to be Travolta. So it comes off as extra operatic and weird. I’m not objecting to this at all.
Between the fights and the weirdness, you can see Woo’s Hong Kong Cinema roots. He tries for family drama and gangster family drama. Face/Off has real-world problems like marriages falling apart, trust, and petting faces with just your fingers. Only some of it succeeds, but do you really care? What’s important is that there are screwed-up people. That swap faces.
As the final act approaches, Archer is going insane wearing Troy’s face, losing who he really is. They meet again at one of Troy’s hideouts where Archer is hanging out with Troy’s ex and associates. Another massive gun battle ensues with the FBI. Troy loses his brother, kills the head of the FBI, and is even more hellbent on taking down Archer. And Archer finds a confidant in his wife after he convinces her that he is the person behind Troy’s face.
It All Ends With Birds
They meet for a final time at the FBI director’s funeral. And because it’s a John Woo movie Face/Off has doves that come out of nowhere.
Troy brings hostages, guns, and goons and it becomes a gun party. Everyone points and shoots at everyone in a blaze of… glory? Sure. After the initial blast of bullets, our antagonist and protagonist (and his family) are left.
The traditional one-on-one shoot-out turns into a high-speed boat chase with massive explosions. Then a fight with an anchor on a boat ends in a ski jump and everyone in the air in slo-mo… and an explosion. It all ends with a harpoon, a scream, a final face swap, and a very unlikely adoption. Everything is well. No gotcha where Troy shows up or the face swap didn’t happen and no hook for a sequel. It’s weird after the last 15 years of movies not to have any of that.
Face/Off Is Great
Face/Off is undeniably ’90s with its cinematography, design, and overall feel, but it generally holds up. It’s not aged by bad CG or a small budget ($150 million, adjusted for inflation). It doesn’t try to be too futuristic and is driven by more than the antics it’s known for. And it accepts its faults and stupidity and outlandishness. It takes a running leap and goes face first into flaws.
Its two leads give the movie confidence – they were both at the top of their game. Cage had just done The Rock and Con Air, and Travolta was riding high on Pulp Fiction. They play dual roles and took them seriously. I can’t think of anyone else that could have pulled this off.
I’m not going to say this is the best John Woo movie (that goes to Hardboiled), but it is the second best.