Entertainment

Why 'Face/Off' Was the Ultimate 90s Action Movie

Released 20 years ago, John Woo’s now-classic film perfectly encapsulates an absurd decade of action filmmaking.

by Frederick Blichert
Jul 4 2017, 1:54pm

The 1990s were truly a golden age of high-concept action films, offering the most stripped-down, easily marketable premises, that were basically excuses for their action set-pieces. Convicts on a plane. A bomb on a bus. A wanted man, but the twist is he's innocent. A theme park with dinosaurs, but the dinosaurs have escaped.

I'm not knocking it. Action pics usually work better with a simple set-up, and that kind of popcorn movie has become a rare commodity. It's why we all get so excited when something as to-the-point as John Wick comes along.

For my money, the best of the 90s actions pics was John Woo's 1997 masterpiece Face/Off—138 minutes of unhinged nonsense, tied together by a beautifully simple set up. A cop has to impersonate a dangerous criminal to get information about an impending terrorist attack. The twist is that he needs the info from the criminal's brother, so the two trade faces through a new experimental surgical procedure. Did I mention they're played by 90s mainstays John Travolta and Nicolas Cage?

Adding the sci-fi element was a stroke of genius, keeping the simplicity of other action films (a cop and a criminal trade places) while totally raising the stakes (they literally trade faces!). That genre-blending has always fit snuggly into action cinema, but the 90s were hitting some high notes in the shamelessly cheesy department ( Timecop and Demolition Man come to mind).

If you think about Face/Off's premise for even a minute, it makes no sense at all, but somehow the movie works anyway. The premise also allows for some fun, on-the-nose visual metaphors—a two-sided mirror separates Travolta and Cage, so that when they shoot through it, they're firing on each other and on themselves (it may not be deep, but it gets the job done).

The casting feels like a time capsule preserving Cage and Travolta in their primes. Cage plays criminal Castor Troy, with Travolta as FBI special agent Sean Archer—but then again those roles are reversed for about 95 percent of the movie.

One of the most satisfying features of Face/Off is watching Cage and Travolta impersonating one another. At times, Travolta delivers lines that seem frankly stupid ("we're gonna blow up LA, bro. Ain't it cool?"), that is until you imagine Cage delivering them in an identical tone. Suddenly they make perfect sense. There aren't many actors who could pull off a line like "I'm about to unleash the Biblical plague Hell-A deserves," but Cage somehow nails it—and Travolta's not a bad understudy, in his own unassuming way. We get the full Travolta spectrum here, from stern patriarch, to smooth(ish) cool guy, to hyperactive attention hog. We get echoes of everything from Pulp Fiction to Look Who's Talking. It's pretty impressive to watch him move from one role to the next so seamlessly.


Cage is really the star player here though. It can be hard to believe that Nic Cage was once taken pretty much entirely seriously, but you don't really need to look beyond Face/Off to see why. In '97, he was still riding the high of his Oscar win for Leaving Las Vegas just two years earlier, and he had just starred in Michael Bay's The Rock and the above-mentioned convicts-on-a-plane summer hit Con Air (released the same month as Face/Off). He was on a roll.

But in Face/Off more than any of those, we really see Nicolas Cage's range. He plays the straight-faced good guy, with hints of a serviceable Travolta impersonation, and the over-the-top criminal. But somewhere in between, something really special happens. Cage shows us how perfectly self-aware he is as we watch him playing a bewildered Travolta trying his hardest to become Cage. It's a layered self-analysis that ends with Nic Cage just being Nic Cage in the most compelling way imaginable. He looks at himself in a mirror, slowly turning his mouth into a smile, then into a Joker-ish, maniacal grin. He then opens his eyes wide, turning himself into an internet-meme version of himself. It's the ultimate Nic Cage impersonation.

The initial surgery scene is full of great, gory details, with Archer's face being cut off and replaced before us. At that point, Troy is in a vegetative state, so it's only when he unexpectedly wakes up later that he becomes Archer, after kidnapping the surgeon and forcing his hand. The way this second scene is achieved though, is pure pulpy horror, with the supposedly state-of-the art surgical facility suddenly feeling like a creepy, poorly-lit asylum. Troy wakes up with a bandage wrapped around his head and is soon walking around with the fresh wound where his face used to be completely exposed. Both scenes seem to draw from Georges Franju's classic French horror film Eyes Without a Face, but they're great even if you miss the reference.

I still don't understand why the surgery scenes manage to work so well despite not fitting into the rest of the movie at all—but then there's also a whole section that takes place in a secret prison built into an offshore oil rig where inmates wear metal boots and the floor is magnetized, so who the hell knows? It's the decade that gave us an oil rig crew saving Earth from a stray asteroid. Some questions are better unanswered.

I can't imagine any director other than John Woo making all this work. He packs Face/Off with his signature moves from earlier films like The Killer, Hard-Boiled, and Hard Target. We get the slow-motion doves in flight (so many doves!) that probably identify Woo more anything else. It's a hammy trope that can be used with some degree of restraint (think Blade Runner), but Woo consistently cranks it to 11.

We also get his classic two men facing off with guns drawn in each other's faces. So much of Face/Off feels lifted out of the Hong Kong action films that were having a huge impact on Hollywood by 1997, from Jackie Chan to the many western martial artists having their 15 minutes. Woo's straight-from-the-horse's-mouth directness proved ideal here.

The cherry on top is that the whole thing ends with a speedboat chase for absolutely no reason at all. The decade had a knack for replacing the stale old car-chase finale with something a little more showy. A fighter jet in True Lies, a city bus and subway in Speed, a moving train in Mission: Impossible. Face/Off gets extra points for how out-of-the-blue the boat scene is. As Cage chases Travolta on foot, the two randomly end up at a marina, hop aboard two separate vessels, and the chase is on.

Face/Off really is B-movie material that could have easily ended up as a low-budget straight-to-video dud, and overcoming that is probably its most 90s badge of honour. All of the weird, disparate parts somehow fit together, and Woo injects real heart into the whole thing. We don't care that much that Archer's son was killed by Troy years ago, but it makes his motivation and hatred for Troy believable, and makes Troy's heartlessness immediately apparent. That's information we get in the film's brief opening scene, and the rest of the movie is just as efficient. It pivots from tough-as-nails action sequences to overwrought melodrama on a moment's notice. 90s action movies always seemed to find room for a dead kid, an estranged wife, a rebellious daughter—anything to humanize their heroes just enough to carry the plot along.

There probably aren't any viewers of Face/Off who remain on the fence about it. You either dismiss it as stupid trash or submit to it fully. If you make it past the first 15 minutes, you're in it for good. It requires the kind of suspension of disbelief that's hard to achieve unless you're having a really good time, and more than anything, Face/Off definitely offers that. As a product of the 90s, it's in good company, but it's truly at the top of its class.

Follow Frederick Blichert on Twitter.