Action maestro John Woo’s much touted leap from his native Hong Kong to the shores of American filmmaking hadn’t really produced everything we’d hoped back in 1997. Sure Van Damme kickathon Hard Target and John Travolta’s nuclear-heisting mince-fest Broken Arrow were fun in a pulpy sort of way but where was the majesty of the church shoot out or the sheer emotion of The Killer, or anything that matched a single second of Hard Boiled. It seemed that Woo had left the ability to craft such phenomenal cinematic conflagrations back in his homeland and he was destined to be just another Hollywood hack, indistinguishable from from the very directors who’d been ripping him off for years.
And then Face/Off came along…
Years after a bungled hit on his life left his young son dead in his arms, vengeful FBI special agent Sean Archer has vowed to bring justice to the man responsible, flamboyant uber-criminal Castor Troy. Troy – a terrorist for hire and not adverse to swaning around on windy days with a long coat on and bizarrely molesting choir girls mid high note – has set a chemical weapon to detonate somewhere in downtown LA and is about to bounce out when Archer and a heavily armed strike team turn up to delay his flight permanently. During the spectacular shoot out, which involves ears being shot off and a helicopter raming a taxiing jet, Troy is put into a coma by having an unfortunate meeting with a jet engine but no before he let’s slip about the existence of the bomb to Archer, who under the advice of Special Ops and some bleeding edge surgeons undertakes a radical course of action.
Using state of the art plastic surgery techniques, they propose to remove Archer’s face and replace it with Troy’s so that he can infiltrate a secret government prison and get the location of the bomb from Castor’s childlike brother Pollux. The operation goes without a hitch and Sean is inserted into a penal facility (which requires inmates to sport big-ass metal magnetic boots that resembles Frankenstein’s hand-me-downs) while wearing the face of his most hated enemy but as dumbfoundedly bad luck would have it, Troy awakes from his coma – sans face – and proceeds to not only coerce the doctors to attach Sean’s face to his, not only to murder anyone who knows about the secret mission but he also inserts himself into Archer’s LIFE by taking his job, living with his family and making sure that Archer rots in jail.
With this nightmarish switcheroo in place and Archer slowly losing his mind, he has to stage a daring escape to reclaim not, not just his identity, but his very facial features and strike back at Troy but to do so he’ll have to continue to pose as his most hated enemy and make allies with people he himself has arrested.
Soon enough the doves and the bullets are both flying thick and fast as this insanely personal grudge match ratchets up further and further, consuming vast chunks or real estate and the lives of anyone within range of their blazing firearms.
Face/Off may possibly be one of the most finely crafted acts of American cinematic action lunacy ever made, a perfect melding of director and his two incredibly game leads. Woo, finally given creative control over a hugely mounted western production, wisely keeps the sci-fi elements in the background as to not let it overshadow the suprisingly complicated and hugely enjoyable character work – that, and some truly superlative action.
Virtually EVERYTHING in Woo’s world is either flammable or highly explosive with bravura sequences diving around firing duel handguns all over the fucking place. Not only does this movie stage a studio apartment shredding blitzkrieg set dreamily to the soothing strains to Over The Rainbow but it even climaxes with the greatest speedboat chase since Live And Let Die, with plenty other jaw dropping sights besides to hit the nitrous button on your dopamine levels.
All this practically orgasmic action is all fine and well (and utterly awesome to boot) but it would mean sweet eff all without the two leads frantically trying to outdo each other while copying each others mannerisms to an hilarious degree.
At this point in time, Travolta was on his first (or was it second, I get lost) comeback while Cage was just rounding off his 90’s action movie holy trinity (The Rock and Con-Air being the first two) and both jump into this film feet first.
Cage does the heavy lifting, firstly setting up Castor Troy as wild-eyed lunatic with a unique array of highly dubious chat up lines (“If I were to LET you SUCK my tongue, would you be grateful?”), and then portraying the tragic Archer after the face lift basically losing his mind, utilising the actor’s well honed repartee of gurning like a demon on speed. Travolta, however, gets to have F.U N.! Shedding Archer like a skin and embracing Troy like a long lost lover, he waltzes around with one hand perpetually tucked in his waistcoat snapping at anything that moves like a theatrical T-Rex while cackling like a maniac. It’s hugely entertaining and both actors attack the film with a suprising lack of ego (behold Travolta as Troy mocking his own “ridiculous chin”) but they also both give the two characters plenty of tics and shared personality traits to flesh out what could have become a couple of ridiculous cartoon characters (Castor lovingly tying his brother’s shoe laces, for example) going to maniacal lengths to shoot each other.
The other actors wisely try stay out of their way (is… is that Thomas Jane?) but massive props go out Joan Allen who, as Archer’s wife, has to brave the full force of the acting maelstrom while essentially playing the straight man to Travolta’s preening villain and Cage’s grief stricken hero – or is it the other way round? – and manages to stand tall amongst the shrieking and prancing.
But it’s to Woo and his lead’s credit that they manage to wring actual pathos from this wonderfully preposterous concept (arguably all three where never this good again) with both characters being genuinely altered by their experiences in each others world.
Big, bold and bombastically beautiful, Face/Off could well be the very pinnacle of 90’s action movie nirvana. And if you think that’s an over exaggeration… well, you can just fuck/off…