Published on June 27th, 1997 | by Padraic Coffey


Face/Off (1997)

Before he made the transition from Hong-Kong to Hollywood in the early 1990s, John Woo had amassed a reputation as one of the finest action film directors in the world. His The Killer, A Better Tomorrow and Hard-Boiled were all widely acclaimed examples of the genre, and while Quentin Tarantino may have cited Woo’s regular leading-man Chow Yun-fat as an influence on Page One of his Reservoir Dogs script, Tarantino later admitted that Woo’s name would have been more fitting.

As it stands, Woo’s stint in Hollywood comprises only a fraction of his career as a filmmaker so far, with an admittedly prolific six American movies in the space of about ten years, veering from hugely successful blockbusters like Mission Impossible 2 to Windtakers which failed to recuperate it’s $115 million budget at the box office. Of these handful of films, Face/Off is surely the most revered: a thrilling, sentimental and quite preposterous work with lead performances from two the 1990s most popular actors: Nicholas Cage and John Travolta.

John Travolta’s career had skyrocketed, after an extended period in the doldrums, with 1994’s Pulp Fiction, while Nicholas Cage rather unusually choose to follow up his 1995 Academy Award for Leaving Las Vegas with high-octane action films The Rock and Con Air. Face/Off, with its ludicrously implausible storyline, allowed both actors to steal scenes from each other, depending on what section of the film you were watching.

FBI Agent Sean Archer (Travolta) has spent years, at the expense of his personal life, obsessed with detaining terrorist-for-hire Castor Troy (Nicholas Cage). Archer’s obsession stems from the botched assassination attempt on his life made by Troy, in which Archer’s five year old son was killed. The film opens with a typically balletic, over-the-top action sequences involving helicopters, airplanes, jeeps, countless bullets and acres of shattered glass. Troy is almost killed, rendering him “a turnip” in the words of one character, but evidence arises of a enormous chemical bomb planted in downtown Los Angeles – the location of which is known only by Troy’s brother, Pollox (Alessandro Nivola). The obvious solution? Archer’s face must be surgically replaced with Troy’s, and the agent sent to a maximum security prison in order to ascertain from Pollox the location of the bomb. Naturally, all does not go to plan…

To give Woo and screenwriters Mike Werb and Michael Colleary their dues, they do at least attempt to make credible such an inherently incredible premise. The surgical procedure by which the faces are removed and transplanted is covered in great detail, even if the audience is ultimately left wondering how many other, less extreme options must have been dismissed before this was decided upon, as well as whether or not the ‘state of the art’ technology used to carry out such an operation had been used in less extreme circumstances. Nitpicking plot-holes in a movie like Face/Off, however, misses the point. The concept of having your life stolen by a doppelganger is a nightmarish one that has recurred throughout fiction, and raises the bar on what is at stake between the hero and villain.

If you can suspend disbelief for the duration of its running time, Face/Off delivers several outstanding action sequences that are equal or surpass almost anything made by an American director of the genre since the 1980s. As well as the opening capture scene, there’s a prison break, a penthouse shootout, a Mexican stand off in a church (with Woo’s trademark doves flapping in slow-motion), a speedboat chase and a mano-a-mano fight between out two leads. What is even more impressive than the sheer velocity of these set pieces, is the strange poetry Woo brings in the moments leading up to them. Whether it’s Archer pensively glancing at the FBI decorations that adorn his office wall, or Troy’s dawning realisation that his nemesis is waiting in the aisles, these moments stand out from typical Hollywood action cinema, which delivers frenetic pacing but few opportunities for respite. These moments are also, of course, ripe for parody – some may even find them laughable – but in the context of the film, they work.

The film is marred by music from Hans Zimmer which is sometimes spectacularly overwrought, and some of the least convincing body-doubles of any film. With a budget of $80 million, surely a more rigorous search could have been conducted before settling for someone who looks nothing like Nicholas Cage? The ending of the film, which recalls the tragic opening scene, is either a justifiable, crowd-pleasing payoff, or an instance of gross sentimentality that jars with the violence that has gone before. Individual audience members will have to make their own mind up. Curiously, a darker, more ambiguous ending was recorded, but scrapped after audience feedback. This can be viewed on the Region One Special Edition DVD.

Though extremely well-received on this side of the Atlantic upon its theatrical release, Face/Off has not entered the pantheon of action classics occupied by the likes of Die Hard, Terminator 2 or The Matrix. Indeed, Woo’s film has aged more in fifteen years, in some regards, than those aforementioned titles. That said, no one could accuse John Woo of failing to deliver on what a film such as this promises: high-energy, blistering entertainment.


About the Author

Padraic Coffey is a freelance writer and film critic who currently lives in Vancouver, Canada. He has written for the Sunday Independent, Ireland's largest circulation newspaper, and Trinity College, Dublin, ranked in the top 100 best universities in the world by the QS World University Rankings in 2014. Additionally, his film criticism has appeared on Volta - Ireland's first VOD website - as well as sites such as Taste of Cinema, Film Jam and Head Stuff.

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