Film at 25: ‘Face/Off’ is a Wildly Successful Action Gem That Still Works
Director: John Woo
Writers: Mike Werb, Michael Colleary
Starring: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Gina Gershon
Synopsis: To foil a terrorist plot, an FBI agent undergoes facial transplant surgery to assume the identity of the criminal mastermind who murdered his only son, but the criminal wakes up prematurely and seeks revenge.
The summer of 1997 gave audiences an extravagant action movie almost every weekend, some good—Men in Black, Air Force One—and some not-so-good (Speed 2: Cruise Control, Batman & Robin). Although many of these films have faded from memory, I would argue the one that offers the most genuine thrills to this day is the sublimely fun Face/Off, starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage and directed by John Woo. Although the premise remains absurdly silly, the strong execution of the plot, character development, and exciting set pieces continue to pull the viewer through.
Face/Off was made at the perfect time, right when both Travolta and Cage were at their peaks as both giant movie stars and respected action icons. Travolta’s Oscar nomination for Pulp Fiction put him back on the A-list, and after the box office hit Get Shorty in 1995, he flirted with the action movie genre with 1996’s Broken Arrow, also directed by John Woo, and then Face/Off. Cage went full steam into the genre after winning his Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, appearing in 1996’s The Rock and then starring in two action movies released in June 1997, not only Face/Off but also Con Air. The idea to pair the two in a movie was an inspired one, one that allows unpredictable and electric performances, particularly from Travolta who gets to emulate the wild antics of Cage for most of the running time.
This film also marked the height of John Woo’s status in Hollywood, too, who after 2000’s Mission Impossible II found less and less success with his theatrical releases in America. A talented Hong Kong director who proved his gift for directing action with movies like The Killer and Hard Boiled, he flopped hard with his first American movie, Hard Target, in 1993 but then bounced back with one of my ultimate guilty pleasures, Broken Arrow, which saw Travolta play a villain and Christian Slater the hero in a crazily outlandish desert-set spectacle from the screenwriter of Speed. The narrative of Broken Arrow flounders a bit here and there, and what makes Face/Off my favorite American film directed by Woo is that it features all the stylish directorial flourishes we’ve come to expect from him while also providing an absorbing narrative about family, trust, and grief that doesn’t peter out toward the end.
The action truly is spectacular throughout, starting with a frenetic chase after an airplane that ends with Cage being launched with fire down a tunnel. At the opposite end of the movie is a rousing speedboat chase that beat any kind of set piece we saw in theaters that summer, the slow-motion shot of a boat crashing through another exploding boat gave a major thrill. But nothing was more indicative of Woo’s inventiveness as an action director than the stunning house shoot-out sequence, dozens of characters being shot to pieces and the stakes rising every second, played in part from the point-of-view of a child listening to “Over the Rainbow” over their headphones.
Some of the great joy in the film goes beyond the action with Nicolas Cage’s diabolical Castor Troy now with the face of John Travolta’s Sean Archer, so when wife Eve (Joan Allen) and daughter Jamie (Dominique Swain) see their beloved Sean, they’re interacting instead with Castor, who’s always scheming and loving every second of getting to hide behind a mask. The many scenes of dramatic irony make the viewing experience fun, as well as seeing Travolta relish in every second of giving his version of the Cage persona and the dastardly sensibilities of Castor. Unfortunately it’s Cage who doesn’t get to have as much fun after his character’s capture; he plays Sean as if he’s been stripped of many of the characteristics that make Cage interesting as a performer. His best moments come when interacting with Travolta, their chemistry as mortal enemies always electric throughout.
Since Face/Off was never part of a franchise, it might not have had the staying power throughout the decades like The Lost World: Jurassic Park or Men in Black, but it made its mark on the action genre in a major way in 1997, receiving terrific reviews from critics, an Oscar nomination, and nearly 250 million dollars worldwide. Richard Corliss of Time said that Face/Off “isn’t just a thrill ride, it’s a rocket into the thrilling past, when directors could scare you with how much emotion they packed into a movie.” I feel this sentiment holds true to this day, the movie more than just pure spectacle, the tremendous cast and engaging story putting Face/Off a couple of notches above your typical 1990s action fare.