“Y’know, I could eat a peach for hours.”
Twenty years ago, Nicolas Cage Woo’d John Travolta and audiences were treated to an action spectacular that ranks amongst the very best.
How often do you remember the first time you saw a movie? And I don’t mean just remember your first experience with a movie, but remember everything about that day in vivid detail. You remember the movie, of course, but you also remember what happened earlier in the day before the movie and how you felt after you saw the movie. I can’t speak for everyone else, but for me that only applies to a handful of films. Don’t get me wrong, my memory bank is overflowing with film viewing experiences, but a lot of them are snippets or blend together into one giant clip show. One film, however, does stand above the rest and that’s John Woo’s Face/Off.
If you’ve read anything I’ve written here at Film School Rejects this should not surprise you. I have this weekly column dedicated to Nicolas Cage and that would not be the case if it were not for Face/Off. Back in March I wrote about my first time seeing Face/Off so I won’t go into great detail on that story again here — you can click here to read all those details — but I will instead attempt to explain why I think Face/Off is so damn great.
Face/Off opens like a fairly standard action flick about a cop dead set on bringing down a very specific criminal that he has a past with. The cop in this case is actually FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) and the criminal is Castor Troy (Cage). Archer has been after Troy for years and it becomes personal when Troy accidentally kills Archer’s son, Michael. From that point forward Archer dedicates his life to hunting down Troy and bringing him to justice.
Eventually Archer does what he sets out to do and brings Troy to justice. Finally he can try and get his life back on track and focus on his family. Archer no longer has to spend every waking minute trying to bring down Troy. He has succeeded. Or so he thinks. As it turns out Troy planted a bomb capable of destroying the entire city of Los Angeles just before his capture. Only two people know where the bomb is — Troy and his brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola). Troy was knocked into a coma during his arrest and Pollux won’t talk to anyone that isn’t his brother. This creates the film’s predicament. Archer must somehow find where that bomb is located and save the city.
Up until this point Face/Off is a pretty standard action movie. You could actually make an entire action movie out of these first few moments. The capture of Troy even contains a massive set piece on an airport runway. Everything audiences have come to expect in a big budget action movie occurs within the first 20 minutes but like all the truly great action movies — Point Break, Con Air, etc. — Face/Off takes things a step further. The step in this case is a sci-fi twist in which Sean Archer undergoes an operation to have his face literally removed and replaced with the face of Castor Troy.
I know a handful of people that haven’t seen Face/Off. That’s hard to believe, I know, but we live in a strange world. Whenever the topic comes up I try and explain to these unfortunate souls why they’re missing out and they always brush the movie off because, in there words, it sounds stupid. Here’s the thing, they’re right, but that’s ok because the best action movies are stupid.
In terms of concept and plot, Face/Off is incredibly stupid. The basic premise is overflowing with flaws. Let’s just say the technology does exist allowing you to remove one person’s face and replace it with the face of someone else, that’s merely half the battle. What about body type? In this film Cage is in wonderful shape whereas Travolta is a little on the pudgy side. Even if you swap out their faces perfectly, surely someone will notice their body types are different, right? It would be one thing if the movie just ignored this fact, which is a problem with a lot of bad movies, but Face/Off takes a much more ballsy approach and says, “Eh, their bodies are different, but they’re close enough.”
Essentially the movie is saying, “Yes, we have some flaws and not everything adds up, but we don’t care.” The movie points out a lot of its own problems and either suggests they’re not that big of a deal or solves them with some fake science that doesn’t make a lot of sense. As a viewer you’re willing to overlook these problems or accept the “solutions” because the film presents everything in a very serious and confident manner and because it’s awesome. And saying something is awesome may seem like a cheap and lazy way of writing, but sometimes things are awesome and the best way to describe them is by saying they’re awesome.
Part of the film’s confidence comes from the two lead performances. Cage and Travolta were both on the top of their game in Face/Off. Cage was coming off The Rock and Con Air, while Travolta was still riding the success of his resurgence brought on by Pulp Fiction. When watching the movie it’s clear that both actors where at a point in time were they felt comfortable doing whatever they wanted so they did whatever they wanted. Fortunately what they did is what we needed.
The movie could have easily turned into something very campy. There’s a fine line between delivering a campy performance that winks at the audience and going big and bold while taking the material seriously. Cage and Travolta never cross that line. They’re both over-the-top and outrageous, but they do so in a way that shows they respect the material and they’re willing to buy in which in turn helps sells the audience.
One of my favorite things about the movie is that Cage and Travolta both play duel roles which just goes to show how serious they took this movie. It would have been easy for Cage to play Troy and Archer the same way and for Travolta to play Archer and Troy the same way. Or they could have played their two roles with subtle differences, but instead both Cage and Travolta took this almost meta approach were they gave their best impressions of one another. Once Cage switches over to Archer he starts doing Travolta and vice versa. This is certainly something I didn’t appreciate as a kid, but every time I watch it now I’m just blown away by how each actor emulates the other — something the actors learned to do by spending two weeks together before shooting. The concept is just so cool to me and they execute it perfectly.
Aside from the outstanding performances you also have Woo’s doves, a shootout that takes place to the tune of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as performed by Oliva Newton-John and the boots from the terrible Super Mario Bros. movie or in other words you have everything you could possibly need.
So yeah, Face/Off is stupid but lots of great movies are. It’s all about the suspension of disbelief. Audiences are willing to forgive stupidity as long as you give them a reason to do so. Face/Off offers up a number of reasons to jump on board with Cage and Travolta leading the way.
Way to go Woo: Joan Allen was Woo’s first choice to play Archer’s wife, Eve. The studio wanted to go with someone younger and have her be Archer’s new wife and stepmother to their children. Woo fought hard for Allen and won.