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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
In the summer of 1997, I went with some middle-school friends to see Face/Off in theaters. It was a special experience for me because it was the first R-rated movie I ever saw in a movie theater, and at the time I thought it was one of the most awesome things I had ever seen. At that time, I had never even seen a John Woo film, and I had no idea who John Woo even was or why he was important. But I loved John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, even as a youngster, and the idea of them facing off against each other (please excuse the unintentional pun) seemed incredibly appealing. Upon my re-watch, I found the level of violence in Face/Off is astounding, even in 2013, and while I don’t think it has aged particularly well, I can still see why I would have been so fascinated by this movie as a 14 year old all those years ago.
The basic plot, for anyone who has never seen Face/Off, is that John Travolta is an FBI agent and Nicolas Cage is a domestic terrorist. When Cage is captured and falls into a coma, FBI agents find out he has planted a nerve-gas bomb somewhere in Los Angeles, but his incapacitation means they’ll never be able to extract the information needed to disarm the weapon out of him. Instead, a leading doctor (Colm Feore of Thor) is brought in to literally slice off Travolta’s and Cage’s faces and switch them with each other. Now, Travolta (as Cage) must get the critical information out of Cage’s brother, who is imprisoned in a maximum security secret prison. All chaos breaks out however when a now-faceless Cage wakes up from his coma, and forces the doctor to put Travola’s face on his body. Now Cage-as-Travolta can infiltrate the FBI and cause even further damage, while Travolta-as-Cage is stuck in a maximum security prison.
Yes, the plot of Face/Off is hilarious, unsubtle, and utterly nonsensical horse shit. However, the film does a fairly decent job just explaining enough the science behind the transplants to almost put the film back into the realm of believability (but not really, I mean it’s still fucking ridiculous). Re-watching the film, I was able to roll with it and suspend my disbelief for the most part. The logistics behind the body switch are hard to swallow for sure, though. I can understand someone not buying into the rest of the movie after this, that’s for sure. If you still can’t take it seriously, just try and imagine Face/Off as more of a science fiction film (the magnetic robot prison boots help with this).
The real pleasure in the transplantations, however, is in getting to see Travolta act crazy like Cage and especially in getting to see Cage give a damn near perfect Travolta impersonation. Cage is great throughout the film, as he has almost always been able to throw himself into a role. He has faced harsh criticism for his recent filmography, but he is almost never boring as an actor. Travolta is quite tolerable too – I wouldn’t consider myself much of a John Travolta fan these days, but his line delivery is good and once he becomes Nic Cage’s terrorist character, he really brings a lot of life to the picture. In short, both of these guys bring an interesting piece to the overall film.
The big re-watch wasn’t all good stuff, however. The big distraction for me in re-watching Face/Off has to be with its forced sentimentality, which I think is both a combination of the sappier aspects of the script and also in John Woo’s direction of the domestic scenes in the film. The parallels between Travolta’s deceased son and Cage’s near-abandoned son are especially forced and nearly cringe-worthy, and I was never able to buy into that aspect of the film. Woo’s choice of music during the film is also laughable, especially when Somewhere Over the Rainbow begins playing during a shootout in Gina Gerson’s house. Woo’s insistence on including the son parallels are, to me, so sappy that they are the true reason to not take Face/Off seriously, not the overly complicated unrealistic surgery portions.
Woo was at the time regarded as one of the finest directors of action movies, but his overall action choreography in Face/Off isn’t really that great. Looking back, I actually think the action in Hard Target, Woo’s first American film, was better than in Face/Off. This movie is pure 90s cheese, which means over-the-top gunplay, Mexican stand-offs, extreme close-ups, fireworks-level explosions, and choppy editing (pre-Bourne!). Movies like Face/Off and it’s summer companion Con Air (a superior film that also starred Nicolas Cage) are perhaps the best examples of 90s action, but Die Hard With a Vengeance is also a pretty good example. These are quality films, but they’re also different from their 80s counter-parts (even different from Woo’s superior 80s filmography). The action, bullets, and body count remain, but it’s almost like the machismo is missing from Face/Off. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s almost like this movie would have benefited from more testosterone.
In the years since Face/Off was released, I almost feel like there was a backlash against it. Woo would go on to make Mission: Impossible 2, a widely hated film that is often cited as the worst of the M:I films, and with good reason. He would then direct Cage again in the WWII movie Windtalkers, which was a huge financial disaster for MGM. He hasn’t directed an American movie since 2003’s Paycheck, which was also met with critical derision. Post Face/Off, Cage would begin to star almost solely in action films for big paydays (exceptions: Bringing Out the Dead and Adaptation), and Travolta would go on to a very weird filmography as well (he would in subsequent years star in the mega-flop Battlefield Earth and then the action movie disaster Swordfish). Even though I didn’t really care entirely too much for Face/Off on a re-watch, I was still able to see what would draw me into the movie in the first place. It isn’t the greatest of action movies, but it is, in a way, one of the last pure action movies ever made. The acting is a particular stand-out, and the character subtleties from Travolta and Cage are worth watching on their own. The rest of the film doesn’t really live up to the energy the leads bring, however.