Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures
“What a predicament!” If you haven’t heard of the hit 1997 science fiction action movie “Face/Off,” directed by critically acclaimed Hong Kong director John Woo, consider yourself…I don’t know what. This movie, for me, hits the same nerve that “The Room” hits for many people by being so ridiculously cheesy that you can’t help but go along with it and love every second of it. It’s been about a year since I actually sat myself down and watched the entire film, but now, without anybody asking me to, I present my abridged, hazy recollection of what makes “Face/Off” such a distinctive movie.
John Travolta stars as Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Agent Sean Archer, a classic '90s hard-boiled lawman disregarding his health and family to catch international terrorist Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). After watching a single scene of Cage’s performance, I totally understand why Archer is so hell-bent on catching him. Cage clearly enjoyed being able to let loose and fully embrace the character of Troy, bringing his effervescent personality to life. I’m talking “dual-wielding solid gold pistols and walking in slow motion while a lackey removes his long coat and another hands him a box (yes a full tin BOX) of assorted drugs.” And that’s before we get to any of the dialogue.
Even with a gun pressed right up against his head, Troy does nothing but laugh at his situation (and at Archer), mocking him with the taunts that he’s “not having any fun, are you, Sean? Why don't you come with us? Try terrorism-for-hire. We'll blow some s--- up! It's more fun!” Troy’s enthusiastic personality carries a lot of the movie’s opening and sets it apart from your typical popcorn action movie. But as I said, this is just for the movie’s intro. We haven’t even gotten to the main plot point and reason for the name “Face/Off.”
Without going too deep into spoiler territory, the primary plot point of “Face/Off” involves a “revolutionary medical procedure” that allows two individuals to swap their, you guessed it, faces. After some convoluted developments, Archer is left with no other choice but to agree to this procedure and go under the knife (in a very visceral surgery scene) to become his worst enemy. Undercover as Troy, Archer then sets off to dismantle one of the biggest terrorism threats Los Angeles has ever seen, leaving Troy with Archer’s face and life.
So already, this isn’t your typical action movie. By sheer premise alone, a unique dilemma has already been employed in which your protagonist and antagonist swap roles less than halfway through the movie. The effects of this old switcheroo drive much of the conflict and character development as both men see how their rival lived (and usually do their best to subvert the expectations made of them). Travolta and Cage certainly demonstrate their dynamic ranges as actors, with both having to play the hardboiled straight shooter Archer and wild, renegade Troy as a result of the central face swap.
I’ve touched on how this movie gave Cage free reign to be as ridiculous of a personality as his meme status precedes and the ridiculous premise its plot is built on, but I feel like I still haven’t touched on what makes it so special in my memory. In fact, beyond these two major points, most of what I remember is a slideshow of its increasingly absurd set pieces and dialogue sequences. Perhaps just throwing them all out there without any context whatsoever might be the best way to convince you to just what this movie, somehow. Note that non-contextual spoilers are in the following paragraphs.
Archer, disguised as Troy, is placed in a maximum security prison where prisoners are tracked by the magnet boots they’re forced to wear. After escaping from this prison, he finds it’s actually on an oil rig. This somehow does not impede his escape at all, and he returns to civilization without a problem.
The only reason Archer’s family can recognize him when he is stuck with Troy’s face is a bizarre gesture wherein he rubs his hand down the length of his wife’s face. This is just a thing his family does, and only they know about it.
Archer and Troy get into a speedboat chase and you can clearly tell that the stunt doubles used are not Cage or Travolta. No real attempt was made to hide this fact.
There is a scene where Archer, disguised as Troy, gets extremely intoxicated on unnamed drugs and goes on an extended rant about wanting to take Archer’s (but actually Troy’s) “face…off. I’d like to take his face…off.” This is complete with hand gestures suggesting taking one’s face off.
This is a movie whose premise is based around two men swapping faces and pretending to be each other. I know I’ve talked about this, but I ask that you just really think about that all the way through.
Heck, I think I might have to sit down and watch it again. Stay tuned to TechNews for my inevitable follow-up to this piece.