And They Weeped for There Was No More Scenery to Chew
John Woo is a director know for his over the top action. He made a name for himself directing balletic action films, ones where the term "gun fu" could be used unironically. Many directors can do action but few can handle it with both the grace and balls out, eye-searing, face-crunching explosiveness of Woo's action. The man has a very specific vision for his films, but it's a vision very few others could even hope to touch. You get the vibe that directors like Simon West (on Con Air) and Antoine Fuqua (with The Replacement Killers) only wish they had half the vision and skill of Woo when it came to creating action as art form.
Although a popular director in Hong Kong for years, Wow didn't really break into Hollywood until 1993's Hard Target. He then had a string had a string of moderate hits (like Broken Arrow), all before unleashing the massively successful (and also massively stupid) Mission: Impossible II. His follow-up films, Windtalkers and Paycheck, didn't find nearly the same success and, eventually, Woo went back to China to produce films in that country's movie industry. But in the middle of his run of movies he created one of the most bug-nuts amazing action films ever devised: Face/Off.
Let's be clear, Face/Off is an incredibly stupid film. It's entire conceit is based on a single piece of tech that simply couldn't exist -- a surgical procedure to cut around, and life off, a person's face and put it on someone else's, while also adjusting every other bit of their body to match -- and yet that doesn't really matter. Once the film gets through its one weird bit of "this is impossible" sci-fi techno-babble, it then motors full speed ahead into wondrous action explosiveness. This is a film absolutely perfectly designed for all of Woo's strengths as a director. I would go so far as to say that there was no other director working in 1997 that could have made Face/Off, not an achieve the kind of majesty Woo made with this film.
Sean Archer (John Travolta) is a loving father, and FBI agent, who witnesses his young son Mikey, get gunned down in an assassination attempt on Archer's own life. For seven years since that incident he's carried the guilt of his son's death with him, vowing to get the man responsible: known terrorist Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). Archer has pushed his family away -- wife Eve Archer (Joan Allen), daughter Jamie Archer (Dominique Swain) -- all in his quest to get Castor. And then he does, tracking the villain, and his brother Pollux Troy (Alessandro Nivola) to an airport and capturing them both before they can flee the country. Castor ends up in a coma, Pollux goes to the most impenetrable super-max prison ever, and the case is closed... except it isn't.
It seems that right before that fateful stand-off at the airport, Castor planted a bomb (designed by Pollux) somewhere in downtown L.A. and there's only a few days before the bomb goes off. To get the information out of Pollux (since Castor is unavailable), Archer has to go undercover as Castor, the only man Pollux will trust. This requires having his own face removed and Castor's face surgically attached in its place. Then his body is altered, a digital voice box is implanted, and suddenly Sean Archer becomes Castor Pollux (Nicolas Cage). Sean then goes to the super-man to get the information from Pollux that he needs. But then Castor wakes up, gets in touch with his goons, and has them capture the people that were in charge of this mad science experiment. They surgically put Sean's face onto Castor, making him into the new Sean Archer (John Travolta), and Castor then goes about systemically taking over Archer's life. Archer will have to break out of prison and confront Castor if he's to have any hope of getting his life, and his face, back.
Face/Off is memorable for three things. The first is the body horror concept itself. There is something creepy and icky about the scenes where the faces are removed, the laser cutting in and the flesh plopping up. Going through and watching this film again, I actually found myself having a bit of a reaction to these scenes, which is surprising considering how much horror I watch. The body horror, though, adds to the sci-fi conceit, creating this looming sense of dread over the whole proceeding. It's creepy, and gross, but it promises so much for the movie.
Then there's John Woo's action direction, which is sublime. The man does know his way around a gun fight, and this film has plenty of those. There's the big airport set-piece, with cars on a runway chasing a plane, followed by lots and lots of bullets. There are a few gun fights that then accent the film, all leading up to the big, climactic fight to cap the film. That one really has it all, from guns, to a boat chase, to explosions, and then a solid fist fight at the end. Considering how much bad action was filmed during this era (see: Con Air) it feels great to watch a master at work.
But it's not just the action itself that feels so special, it's the way the characters approach it. Is it necessary for a character to jump out of a plane, gold-plated guns blazing? No. Nor are doves required in every climax, people doing back-flips to perform gun fu. These are artistic flourishes that seem silly when viewed out of context but add to the rich, over-the-top tapestry that is Woo's vision. Face/Off, at it's core, is a silly movie complimented by a vision that, instead of trying to ground everything in reality, says, "let's see how high we can crank this up." It's majestic and there really isn't a better word to describe it.
At the same time, though, we can't ignore the performances (the third thing everyone remembers about this film). This film has to of the greatest, scenery-chewing performances every committed to film. It's pretty clear that Cage came onto the set and got to play the fun and over-the-top character of Castor and then, once Travolta saw what Cage was doing, he clearly had to try and one-up the performance. The two take turns going harder and harder into comical territory, playing their foes as so arch, so sublimely over the top, that it becomes it's own kind of art. Watching cage walk around, wide eyes and bat-shit insane never gets old, and then Travolta comes along, says "woo!" and suddenly we're up another level.
Thing is Travolta and Cage play two different versions of Castor Troy. Cage's is more specific, and more developed. Travolta clearly just heard, "play insane," and did that, but Castor feels like a Cage character when that actor performs him, not just a set of arch ticks. I think Travolta is great at bringing the energy but he fails to match Cage's commitment to the character. On the flip side, Cage manages to find the soulful nuance of Archer than Travolta manages to bring. Hell, I'd argue he gets to have more fun as he plays Archer-as-Troy since he doesn't have to be a sad, mopey bore the whole time. Cage gets the best of both characters and steals the whole show. This is the Nick Cage show, complimented and accented by Travolta, and not the other way around.
But it works. On paper everything about this film screams that it'll be an unmitigated train wreck. But when you watch it, and get into the ludicrous scenario, eventually it just takes you over. It washes over, and through, you until you learn to love it. Face/Off is a sublimely stupid film that crosses right over into being high art. It's a 1990s action masterwork and one of John Woo's best, hands down.