While it’s common to launch critical attacks on summer blockbuster formula action movies, Face/Off has been greatly underrated. Many recognize the signature action style of John Woo (with the swirling capes, fiery explosions, villains, and “high noon” stare-down) that elevates Face/Off above the standard American action flick, but this film has even more to offer.
The opening sequence is an interest-catcher that helps grab you and establish Sean Archer’s (John Travolta) Ahab-like obsession to capture international terrorist Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), as our villain takes aim at FBI agent Archer in an amusement park but kills his five-year-old son instead. The scene is captured silently through black-and-white camerawork and some deft flying balloons, but works well due to good acting by Travolta.
Six years pass, and Archer has relentlessly pursued Troy and knows him more than any person on Earth except perhaps Castor’s brother Pollux (Allexandro Nivola). Terrorist Castor is dealing high stakes and planning a major attack at the Los Angeles Convention Center, showing what a wild-and-crazy guy he is by dressing as a dancing priest and groping choir girls. Turns out he has got some sexual fetishes like slapping ladies’ buttocks and offering his tongue for swallowing. So Castor establishes himself as the wild man, in sharp contrast with his polar opposite—the melancholy Archer, whose thoughts single-handedly dwell on bringing Castor Troy down.
After a dynamic action-packed confrontation at LAX, complete with Woo-styled flying double shooting fireworks, the mission is accomplished. Castor Troy is dead. Or is he? There are still 90 minutes to go, and the bomb to wipe out LA is still set to go off.
Prepare to suspend reality at this point, for science and technology have merged to find a way to keep Troy’s body alive in a vegetative state so that they can exchange Castor’s face for Sean Archer’s to allow the agent to perform the ultimate undercover work and get Pollux to reveal the bomb’s location. It just takes a magical electronic voice converter, some hair-trimming, and lots of body tucks to convert Archer to his archenemy. Now Archer just has to deal with the idea of keeping this all secret from everyone (including his wife). He has to stare at his new evil face and force himself to take on Castor’s wild-and-crazy persona.
Of course, we realize that the plan will go awry. Somehow Castor’s vegetable body comes to life and discovers that his face has been turned to a bloody goo. His henchmen summon the doctors who have done the bloody deed to cover the goo with Archer’s face and to exchange identities. Forget the illogic of the whole situation and sit back to enjoy the ride; Woo has set up a modern Shakespearean device of mistaken identities and turned two great actors loose.
Watching Travolta and Cage play dual hero and dual villain roles remains the most enjoyable aspect from this film.
It’s difficult enough to realize that each actor has many variations of his role to fulfill, as Travolta must portray Cage acting like Travolta but with the Cage character internalized while Cage is performing the same multiple roles. It’s enough to boggle the mind when putting this on paper, but watch for the subtleties in their facial expressions as they make this tricky gimmick work.
OK, let me try one scene here. Keeping in mind how Cage’s character relates to women, imagine Travolta arriving home and seeing the partially clothed daughter through Castor’s eyes while conscious that he can’t let loose and do his butt-slapping/tongue-inserting persona. There are dozens more instances like this that are a pure joy to watch.
Another thing that Woo develops in his film is the Hitchcockian technique of making our hero and villain inseparable. While we have the obvious "good vs. evil" theme developed, Woo creates situations to let us know that this is not black-and-white. As evil as Castor is, we see some sensitivity with his character—the caring for his brother (Alessandro Nivola), personified by his tying of Pollux’ shoelaces, the fact that he has a young son to care for, and the scene where he actually offers helpful advice to Archer’s daughter. Likewise, we see that Archer isn’t all perfect either, as he can be cold and uncaring and turn violent with rage.
To drive this point home, Woo puts the characters into parallel roles with a supporting wife and girlfriend, expertly played by Joan Allen and Gina Gershon. The roles are merged and convoluted so well that the only way to differentiate the true identities must rely on internal cues—from physical ones like differing blood types to habitual ones like a loving gesture or a lustful one. And we do get that final standoff with all four characters pointing guns at one another inside a church.
Of course the whole situation is absurd, but some films are meant to deliver pure entertainment and Face/Off delivers. It also provides some material to reflect on. It may be the common theme concerning the thin line between good and evil, but it’s a pleasure to see this developed visually in John Woo fashion.