The holiday season is upon us and acclaimed director John Woo of Hong Kong will be releasing a new film, Silent Night, in December. This is a true treat for fans of action movies, as Woo is considered the greatest of all time in the genre. Why not take this opportunity to revisit his most iconic and arguably most outlandish film of his career?
In Face/Off, John Travolta portrays FBI agent Sean Archer, who is on the hunt for infamous terrorist Castor Troy, played by Nicolas Cage. However, when Troy attempts to murder Archer and unintentionally kills his son, Archer becomes consumed by the desire for revenge. Six years later, he finally catches up to Castor and puts him in a coma, but not before Castor plants a massive bomb in downtown LA. Desperate to find the bomb’s location, Archer resorts to undergoing a face transplant surgery.
With the help of a skilled plastic surgeon in the Special Operations, Archer takes on Troy’s appearance and identity in order to extract the whereabouts of a bomb from Pollux, Troy’s brother and the only one who knows its location. However, their plan goes awry when, in a world where face swapping is a reality, people can also wake up from comas as if they were just taking a leisurely nap – which is exactly what Troy does before stealing Archer’s face.
Castor, without the negative attention that comes with being involved in international terrorism, appears to take pleasure in Archer’s life, even though it may seem mundane and suburban. He works towards undermining the FBI from the inside and takes a practical approach to adapting to the circumstances. He establishes connections with Archer’s relatives and in certain ways, leads a more fulfilling life than his enemy ever did. On the contrary, Archer becomes more withdrawn and unstable as he lives as the person who caused his family’s downfall.
Woo gained recognition through his impressive body of work in the film industry, which includes notable films like The Killer and Hard Boiled. He also influenced a popular subgenre of action movies known as “heroic bloodshed.” He showcased his talent in Hollywood with the underrated 1996 film Broken Arrow and the exceptional Hard Target. However, Face/Off is a compilation of his signature style, featuring an abundance of slow-motion shots, startled birds, intense gunfights, and numerous explosions. It could be said that Chekhov’s famous quote, “If a flammable gas canister appears in the first act, it must explode behind Nicolas Cage,” applies perfectly to this film.
Woo is fortunate to have two main actors who are not familiar with holding back. Face/Off features a standout performance from Cage, whether he’s dressed as a priest and headbanging to a choir, or completely losing control in a prison fight. Cage fully embraces exaggerated facial expressions and wide-eyed stares, making it difficult to deny that he’s on the brink of madness. And let’s not overlook Travolta, who delivers an equally intense and offbeat performance, matching Cage in energy and delivering some truly eccentric one-liners.
“Subtle” is not a term typically associated with Cage, Travolta, Woo or Face/Off, but their powerful performances make it easy to ignore the absurdity and see it as somewhat realistic. Not once does it seem like Nicolas Cage is imitating John Travolta, or vice versa. This is what makes Face/Off successful: complete conviction.
Face/Off is a riot of action excess and stunt spectacle. In one particularly impressive shootout that has its origins in a scene from Hard Boiled, Somewhere Over the Rainbow plays through a child’s headphones as he witnesses the carnage of an FBI raid, the soothing music providing a brutal counterpoint to the hail of bullets pulping both gangsters and Swat teams as they rappel from the ceiling.
The climax is in typical Woo style. The ultimate confrontation happens in a church. There are additional scenes of gun battles in slow motion, a six-person standoff, and a thrilling speedboat chase to top it all off. If Woo is familiar with the saying “less is more”, Face/Off proves he doesn’t adhere to it. It’s a fantastically crazy film and one of the best, over-the-top action movies of the 1990s.