Movie Review : Face/Off (1997)
My barber has a DVD player set up in his place of business and broadcasts classic movies while he’s cutting hair. I cannot tell you how smart of an investment it is when you run a walk-in salon and there’s frequently six or seven dudes waiting in line. This week, John Woo’s classic Face/Off was playing when I walked in. I hadn’t thought of this movie in perhaps a decade and had definitely forgotten how gloriously crazy it is. We’re talking Grand Theft Auto levels of crazy here. Whoever greenlit this movie was out of his mind on drugs.
Next time someone tells you drugs are keeping you from achieving your full potential, think of this film and remember that it might not be true.
Face/Off is what happens when you take a premise that belongs to a Rob Schneider comedy and turn it into big budget action movie. It’s the story of Sean Archer (John Travolta), a decorated FBI agent who is asked to SWAP FACES… I repeat SWAP FACES with international terrorist Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) right after they had a gruesome fight to the death in an airport hangar. Castor and his brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola) hid a nerve gas bomb somewhere in LA and while Castor’s in a coma, Pollux is the FBI’s only hope. Except that Castor doesn’t stay in a coma. Having your face surgically pulled out will do that to you, I guess.
Now, I was trying to rack my brain thinking of potential themes to discuss in regards to Face/Off and I only found one: identity. And it’s not very profound, it basically says a face can be deceitful and it’s who you are inside that matters. In other words, what your mom used to tell you whenever a girl said you were ugly and/or you looked too good for your own good an started treating women poorly. But Face/Off cannot be bothered with themes and is therefore resistant to conventional analysis, so let’s just list every moment in that movie that blew my mind and try to wrap my head around them:
- Nicolas Cage wears an old man mustache in the very first scene of the movie that makes him look like a young Scatman John. He even wears the suit. It was not even two years removed from the Scatman popularity, so why didn’t anybody flagged it to John Woo?
- About six minutes into the movie, there’s a chase scene involving a private jet, a helicopter and several police car, which ends up in a badass gunfight in an airport hangar. It could’ve been at the end of every other movie, but Face/Off decides to lead with it. Why? I have no idea, but it’s a rather costly way of hooking the audience into the story.
- Face/Off was one face swap too many from creating an excellent Batman villain. Imagine that? Now that Two Face is gone, Batman has a new enemy: NO FACE AT ALL.
- There’s a bald gangbanger character with a hoop earring named Dietrich (Nick Cassavetes) who’s sister is played by Gina Gershon. I can’t think of anything more nineties than that.
- If Pollux was inexplicably paranoid of Sean wearing his brother’s face, why wasn’t he paranoid of Castor wearing Sean’s face? Isn’t it equally fucking crazy?
- I can think of at least five logical ending point for Face/Off, but the movie powers through them all and somehow keeps going. The most logical being Sean’s daughter (Dominique Swain) stabbing Castor in the leg with the smoking gun butterly knife he gave her earlier in the movie. Sean should’ve shot him right there. End of movie. But no, there’s a powerboat chase after that. A POWERBOAT CHASE. Did I mention I loved/ Face/Off?
- At the very end, Sean adopts Castor’s orphan kid who’s going to be a very confused adult later. Imagine trying to explain to him what happened when he’s pointing a gun at your face because you killed his father: “It wasn’t your father being nice to you at the end. It was me, but I was wearing his face.”
I could go on and on. But I want to point out one last thing: what kind of criminal Castor Troy actually is? He’s said to be a terrorist for hire, but what the fuck does that even mean? Troy dresses like a drug kingpin and behaves like a mental ward patient. Does freelance terrorist even exist? Face/Off was made four years before 9/11 and its understanding of terrorism is so disconnected from what we know today that there’s almost a charming innocence to it. The closest real life parallel I could find for Castor Troy is French psychopath Jacques Mesrine, who lived a very short and dangerous life that ended with him getting shot by half a dozen of terrified policemen.
Face/Off aged remarkably well. I can’t think of any movie that was done since that resembles it. It has no regard for realism whatsoever and uses every excuse to usher you into a violent and over-the-top action scene. The movie is 138 movies long and there has to be close to a solid hour of gunfights and crazy action scenes (like that powerboat chase at the end). The best way I can describe Face/Off is: innocent. It’s a bunch of grownup dudes wearing costumes and playing cops and robbers in front of camera. And it’s great, because it’s a movie you can watch innocently even twenty years after the fact, while waiting for a haircut at the barber. That’s why it’s a classic.