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Does 'Face/Off' Actually Suck?

We look back at 1997's most ridiculous action flick to see how if it holds up 20 years later.

by Christy Admiraal
Aug 22 2017, 6:20pm

Does It Suck? takes a deeper look at pop cultural artifacts previously adored, unjustly hated, or altogether forgotten, reopening the book on topics that time left behind.

The best bad movies share three key qualities: They're never boring, the actors give it their all, and the dialogue and plot contain a higher level of nonsense than you'd see in a competently produced film. These elements run rampant in low-budget, low-quality masterpieces like The Room and Fateful Findings, but can be harder to find in big-budget blockbusters. Typically, when a blockbuster fails to entertain, it's because it's rote or dull; if a blockbuster isn't fun, that makes it purely bad, and that's not the kind of bad we talk about when we talk about something like Face/Off.

Face/Off opens with the murder of a child and doesn't let up for nearly two and a half hours. Within the first few minutes, the film introduces John Travolta as Sean Archer, whose son was slain by Nicolas Cage's Castor Troy years before. Archer never fully recovered, so he never stopped hunting for Troy, the wackiest terrorist the country's ever seen. When Archer gets a lead on Troy's whereabouts, they end up in a firefight that takes them from various vehicles speeding along a tarmac to a hangar filled with video game-esque cover spots. That's where we see Troy die—or so we think.

As it turns out, Troy is still alive, and Sean gets the opportunity to borrow Troy's face and disrupt the destruction he and his brother, Pollux (Alessandro Nivola, who's delightful), are plotting on Los Angeles. The plan progresses beautifully as Archer-as-Troy spends some time gathering intel in a landlocked prison where the Geneva Convention doesn't apply and all inmates wear magnetized tracking boots so security runs smoother. Then Troy regains consciousness, threatens the doctor who performed Archer's surgery, gets himself a Travolta face, and sets about dramatically changing Archer's life.

It's around this point that the viewer realizes the disparate elements of Face/Off, when listed, sound a lot like Stefon describing New York's hottest new club on SNL. This movie has everything: twins named for the sons of Leda, identity swapping, prison brawls, magnetized boots, and Joan Allen's ass in sensible slacks. And that's just the first hour.

The remaining hour and change skew closer to the typical trappings of a 90s action movie: Archer-as-Troy does his best to restore order and convince his wife of his true identity, Troy-as-Archer tries to foil that plan, and each attempts to take the other down in a series of gunfights, at least one of which involves a SWAT team. Fear not, though. The movie remains deeply weird, thanks in part to how the Archer family expresses affection: by placing their hand on their parent or child's face and stroking downward. This recurs throughout the movie and reaches its bonkers crescendo in the film's final scene.

Before we get there, though, we're treated to the aforementioned gunfights—one in a room full of mirrors (why not?), the other in a church with an inexplicably high number of doves fluttering around—and a lengthy boat chase that leads to Troy-as-Archer's demise. (Somewhere in the crossfire, Archer's daughter shoots her father and makes up for it by stabbing Troy-as-Archer with a method he taught her in a misguided attempt to seem like a good father. This is ultimately not that important, but it feels worth mentioning that a girl shoots her real dad and stabs her fake dad.) The chase and subsequent death both feel a touch too normal, so the movie course corrects in its closing scene.

For years, Sean Archer has mourned the death of his son. That doesn't mean a surrogate won't do just as well, though, as we learn when Archer brings home Adam, Castor Troy's son who's now parentless after Troy's slaying and his mother's death in the church. (There's a side plot here—Troy didn't know about his son, he left things undone with the mother, and Archer sort of makes things right for him, but none of that really matters.) When Archer informs his wife that Adam will be staying with them, she simply says, "OK," and Archer's daughter does that weird face-stroking thing to Adam as though bringing a replacement child into your home is nothing if not normal. And in the Face/Off universe, why wouldn't that be the case?

To call Face/Off a good movie wouldn't be quite right. The script is uneven, the acts don't flow together particularly well, and it becomes a bit of a slog as it draws to a close. But for this movie, that doesn't matter. What does matter: the commitment of the actors, particularly the two leads, to the sheer insanity of their roles; the hard left turns the plot takes as the cast spews dialogue that ranges from goofy to absolute nonsense; and how utterly entertaining it all turns out to be. Face/Off may not be good as a film, but it's as close to perfect as a good bad blockbuster can be. And sometimes, that's the way you want it to be.

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Nicolas Cage
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face/off