ESPN ‘Sports Guy’ Bill Simmons gave a brilliant and potentially accurate appraisal of Face/Off when he suggested that the film’s creators had come up with its title before anything else. It’s easy to imagine the writers working backwards after that: “We’ve got the name ‘Face/Off’; now obviously two people have to face off against each other in this one...” I imagine the writers toiled away, unable to come up with anything other than cookie-cutter action movie ideas that had been filmed myriad times before. And then, after hours of deliberating on many unremarkable scenarios, somebody proposed what the film eventually became: “What if we literally take someone’s face off?” And there was applause all around.
Make no mistake: Face/Off is about as ridiculous a picture as you or I will ever see. It is fortunate, then, that we’re having too much fun to care about the irrational foundation the film is built on. One moment Nicholas Cage is hanging out the door of an airplane while firing a pistol at a helicopter piloted by John Travolta. Next, the two men have swapped faces following a disturbing (and deliciously nonsensical) medical scene. Then they face off in a hall of mirrors against each other and later duel in a chapel. The film is relentlessly unapologetic about its many, many affronts to logic because it knows we are enjoying all of its idiosyncrasies. Action is, of course, what director John Woo is known for; last week we examined his picture Hard Boiled, an equally unapologetic entertainment piece. Face/Off is very different from Hard Boiled. While Hard Boiled’s narrative is ultimately inconsequential, Face/Off is completely driven by its narrative, at the cost of the elaborate action set-pieces Woo’s fans are familiar with. With Face/Off, Woo was delivered a script typical of a Hollywood action flick. To analyze Woo’s performance, then, we should consider what he did with the material he was given.
I would be remiss if I didn’t begin by noting that Face/Off could not have survived without Nicholas Cage’s injection of crazy, and to a lesser extent Travolta’s unleashing of the lunatic within. Cage really makes the film work. One could, if one was a little too passionate, do a serious take on Face/Off—pretend that the subject matter is valid and interpret the film as if it has a legitimate message to communicate to the viewer. But it’s hard to imagine that Face/Off would work if one took such a sober approach, and, judging by his performance, Cage realized this fairly early on. Cage is perfect: when he is acting as his own character, Castor Troy, he is utterly insane and almost too manic to bear; when he is acting in place of Travolta’s FBI agent Sean Archer, he is suitably reserved and melodramatic. The best comes when he acts as Travolta acting as Cage, a performance that I don’t think I can do justice to in words. His potency prevents Face/Off from being eaten up by its own ludicrousness. This is a film which demands the audience make some kind of logical conceit at almost every turn—you expect me to believe that Archer wouldn’t tell his wife that he’s swapping faces with a madman, for instance?—and certainly, Cage’s antics make all such narrative issues disappear.
Action is at a premium in Face/Off, which was not the case in Woo’s earlier works (particularly Hard Boiled). Here, Woo attempts to integrate his ‘action choreography’ into a more narrative-heavy film, and he finds some success. There aren’t many extended shootouts in Face/Off, and Woo doesn’t lean back on slow-motion as much as in his other works (though he would later use a ton of slow-motion in Mission Impossible II). This is, then, a very different creature to Hard Boiled. What shootouts Woo does give us are superb; perhaps the most impressive one is the hall-of-mirrors duel which, predictably, ends with every mirror on the floor and in pieces. Other than the few small-scale fights, where Woo excels, Face/Off feels much like any other Hollywood action flick. Given a larger scale, Woo’s directorial touch inexplicably fades. The opening sequence on the runway and the final sequence on the waterfront felt much like something we’d see in a James Bond film or in The Transporter. The scenes are very well done nonetheless—it’s just that the John Woo flair disappears when the action becomes big. Evidently, Woo is much more at home filming close-quarter fights.
From a critical perspective, Face/Off is most interesting when it delves into the psychology of the two leads, when they switch faces and personalities with each other. If you read a commentary on Face/Off (unfortunately, there aren’t many), or even a review of the film from a respected critic, you’ll see that there are some who treat this psychological part of the film seriously. Roger Ebert, for instance, made reference to the psychological struggle between the two leads. But story is not this film’s strong suit. It’s clear the filmmakers wanted to give the film more gravity by fleshing out the personality-switching angle, but I’m not sure they were entirely successful. At the very least, Woo and the film’s writers never stray beyond the trite kind of observation we’d expect from such a plotline—the idea that, on a basic level, Cage and Travolta are really the same person, something that Woo tries to hint at during the prelude to the mirror shootout. Should Face/Off really attempt to be ‘deep’ experience at all? This is, after all, an action film with only one object: to excite its audience.
Certainly, some of the film’s best moments come when Troy and Archer first switch faces. That boilerplate dynamic is well executed, but there isn’t much narrative to read into beyond that. Woo may have wanted to add more weight to the story, but the sheer absurdity of it all essentially makes that impossible. Had Face/Off been solemn from the outset there may indeed have been the potential for that kind of psychological thriller to play out, but as mentioned earlier, I suspect Face/Off can only work as a crazy film, and is better off as such. Woo is not a great patron of narrative—we saw this with Hard Boiled, and it is true of Face/Off, and it also applies to his later films, like Mission Impossible II. He is comfortable filming an action scene, and it is in that arena where he outclasses most of his contemporaries. That ability need not be quashed in favor of a grandiose story.
And I don’t want action films like Face/Off to focus on story any way. Face/Off falls squarely into a category that director Akira Kurosawa called “100% Entertainment.” These are not films that need to affect the audience in any particular way; they only need to impress and thrill, and if they have achieved that, and if the audience leaves the theater satisfied, then the film can be considered a success. By that metric, Face/Off is a triumph. As insane action films go, Face/Off is as good as it gets. It doesn’t need to be more than that. Since we began with a note by Bill Simmons, it seems appropriate to end with one. “In a bad action movie,” Simmons said, “you have to say the [film’s] title. Somewhere the title has to be said.” Accordingly, Nicholas Cage, playing the role of Sean Archer: “I want to take his face off. It’s coming off. Face... off.” What more do you need? To that, I stand and applaud.
Next week we’ll look at the Michael Douglas/Sharon Stone classic Basic Instinct. Be sure to watch it and join in the discussion then. The quotes from Bill Simmons came from this discussion involving him and radio personalities Adam Carolla and Dave Dameshek. The clip is about twelve-minutes long, and was originally recorded in 2006 on Adam Carolla’s morning radio show.