Twenty years later, John Woo's ham-tastic 'Face/Off' has aged remarkably well

Twenty years later, John Woo’s ham-tastic ‘Face/Off’ has aged remarkably well

By Jarrod Jones. This is RETROGRADING, where we could eat a peach — you know what? No.

Image: Paramount Pictures

THE FILM: Face/Off

THE TIME: 1997. Ah, the 90s. A neon-splattered era of plenty. For the summer blockbuster, however, the decade’s excesses had devolved the genre into a surreal phantasmagoria of high-octane — yet curiously vanilla — action flicks featuring millionaires acting like complete buffoons onscreen. My, how little has changed.

RECOLLECTIONS: Come 1997, the blockbuster was a far cry from 1977, when George Lucas’ Star Wars galvanized a nation into willfully offering up their hard-earned cash in exchange for a glimpse at something that didn’t rhyme with “gas shortage.” The blockbuster had met its limitations by the mid-Nineties (technological and/or otherwise), and audiences found themselves at the mercy of sure things like rampant sequels and the diminishing promise of marquee names. (Damn, this is really starting to sound familiar.) By 1997, the blockbuster had hit a wall.

So it was that premiere Hong Kong actionier John Woo (The Killer, Hard Boiled) was to helm the potentially disastrous Face/Off, aimed at a summer ’97 release. Written by Michael Colleary and Mike Werb, Face/Off starred John Travolta, who was in the midst of enjoying his second career renaissance, and Nicolas Cage, who at this point was already chasing the multi million dollar dragon.

There’s no time wasted getting this film going: over the first half of the opening credit roll, we learn everything we’ll ever need to know about the vendetta between hero Sean Archer (Travolta) and villain Castor Troy (Cage). Troy, a flamboyantly psychotic terrorist, attempts to assassinate his pensively stoic government rival, but ends up merely wounding him — and killing Archer’s son in the process. And away we go.

The second half of the opening credit roll is dedicated to the first showdown between the two, establishing quirks and mannerisms for the protagonist (haunted, short-tempered, obsessive) and the antagonist (The Joker) for the inevitable character swap later on. The opening action sequence would have been a foot-stomping finish for a lesser action flick, but in the hands of John Woo, the intro becomes a game of chicken between almost half of the LAPD barreling down an airstrip with Archer leading the charge, and Troy’s private jet attempting to take off in their direction. There’s a helicopter chase and a gun-fu fight tossed in for added measure. The best part? That’s just the appetizer.

Image: Paramount Pictures

THE DIRECTOR: For a director well known for luxuriating in his own iconography, John Woo definitely lets Face/Off be its own thing. Stylistically, it stood out from the rest of the ’97 blockbuster pack (to this day it still casts a longer shadow than, say, David Fincher’s The Game, or even Simon West’s Con Air, which also starred Cage). Chalk that up to its own audacity. Woo indulged the quirks of his leading men, letting the camera catch disorienting glimpses of Nic Cage’s flailing tongue or John Travolta’s tendency to cut a rug at completely inappropriate moments. The movie works incredibly well because of this.

Don’t get me wrong, Woo certainly puts his stamp on the material — the hero uses twin guns, there are doves hovering around in slow motion in places where there probably shouldn’t be — but for the most part, the director acquits himself magnificently in a feature that always ran the risk of being absorbed whole by its gonzo leads. This movie likely wouldn’t have succeeded without him.

Image: Paramount Pictures

THE CAST: The film is really just a ham showcase for John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, two men tasked with playing each other, playing each other. The film pads itself with the actors sharing relevant interactions with supporting players, all of whom serve a purpose in making sense of all of this nonsense. With support from character actors such as Colm Feore (Thor), CCH Pounder (The Shield), Gina Gershon (Bound), and Alessandro Nivola (Laurel Canyon), it makes the outright lunacy of the film’s premise easier to swallow.

There is an almost mythical bent to the conflict between Castor Troy and Sean Archer that merits a mention here. Two hated nemeses, wearing each other’s skin, pretending to be the other to destroy their hated enemy’s life, orchestrated by John Woo’s slo-mo trenchcoats and back-flipping gun fights. It feels almost superheroic. Castor Troy even muses like a supervillain: “Ah, yesthe eternal battle between good and evil, saint and sinners… but you are still not having any fun.”

Playing Troy way bigger than larger-than-life is a benefit for Nicolas Cage; even when he’s forced to act like mopey Sean Archer pretending to act like Castor Troy, Cage still has way too much fun. Which, as it turns out, is the perfect balance to Travolta’s Sean Archer. Echoing the detached and slightly unhinged hero types that inform his character, Archer is all pathos before the switch begins. After the flesh gets swapped, Travolta is all flash and pizzazz. The men balance each other perfectly. No one’s ego overshadows their co-star. It’s perfect.

Image: Paramount Pictures

NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? There were no filmic equals to the latter half of this particular decade. Face/Off reveled above all in its decadence, demanding that you frolic with it in its daring.

RETROGRADE: 6 out of 10