Yes, yes this is almost a month late. Damn it though, I said this would be a weekly feature and I have every intention of catching up! So technically this one is “This week 20 years and 1 month ago.” Close enough! On to the review I started weeks ago!
Believe it or not there was once a time where you could like Nicolas Cage unironically. Now Cage has become an ongoing punchline, known for starring in a dozen movies a year that are doomed to the world of direct to DVD. It’s actually exciting now whenever he pops up in a major theatrical release, which is rare these days (Snowden is the only recent example I can think of). Once upon a time though, Cage starred in a truly impressive trilogy of action movies. It started in 1996 with The Rock, then 1997 gave us the double whammy of Con Air and Face/Off, which closes out the trilogy. I loved this movie when I saw it in ’97 but haven’t been back to it since.
Let’s get this out of the way immediately – Face/Off is a tremendously stupid movie. It was back then and that has only amplified in the decades since. There’s likely no need to get into the premise of the movie because even if you haven’t seen it, you know the concept. Just in case, check this out. So you know how like, when two people are squaring off against each other it can be referred to as them facing off? That’s what’s happening here between Castor Troy (Cage) and Sean Archer (John Travolta). They are longtime enemies, with Castor being responsible for the death of Sean’s son (though they weren’t fans of each other before that incident either). As you can see, they are facing off against each other, hence the title of the movie. But also they are literally removing their faces and switching them around. That’s also a thing that’s happening.
It’s a completely insane and ridiculous premise, but the movie never acknowledges this and it’s all the better for it. Travolta initially seems stunned the technology exists, but the movie doesn’t nudge the audience and go “Don’t worry. We know it’s dumb too.” It’s played straight and that’s the smart way to go. I feel this movie would be an action comedy if they made it today and would star Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg.
Of course the science of today has not yet caught up to the world of Face/Off. The scene where the process of face removing is explained is great because they don’t really delve into the technology involved. They show a 3D printer making an ear so we did eventually get to at least that point technologically, but from there everything goes completely off the rails. They explain the fact that Travolta and Cage have completely different body types with a throwaway line essentially saying “oh magic lasers will take care of that and your totally different hair. Don’t even worry about that.” I love it. The scene feels almost like an obligation, like they felt they had to make some sort of attempt to explain all this nonsense. “Look there’s science and lasers and trust me if we say it with enough confidence this will work just fine.”
The insanity doesn’t stop at the premise though. This movie is constantly throwing over the top crazy at you. You have Nicolas Cage doing a ridiculous dance dressed as a preacher while grabbing a girl’s ass within the first five minutes. You get your usual John Woo slow motion doves. Then there’s a whole stretch in the middle where Archer as Troy is sent to this crazy island prison where they all put on the boots from the Super Mario Bros. movie and magnets keep them stuck to the floor. For a nearly two and a half hour long movie, they never run low on new and inventive scenarios to throw your way and the movie hardly ever lets up, even at that length.
Cage and Travolta are giving it their all in this one. This is peak mega-acting from the two of them, getting the chance to play both the hero, the villain, the hero pretending to be the villain and the villain pretending to be the hero. They go reallllllly far with it but never quite pass the point where it becomes too much. It always manages to stop one step away from going over the mega-acting line.
The action is top notch, particularly the two sequences that book end the movie. You get a plane/car chase and shoot-out in an airport where Cage wastes absolutely no time leaping through the air in slow motion while firing two pistols. A giant fan also plays a key role and I think we as a society can all agree a giant fan always adds to an action scene. Then at the end you get a pretty spectacular boat chase with stuntmen hanging off the side of boats and go crashing through the water. The boat chase is a very underrated and underserved action scene, and the ones we get are often not executed terribly well. Maybe it’s the lack of obstacles in the open water. In a car chase you get other cars, civilians, boxes, shifting terrain, etc. With a boat chase you maybe get some other boats, and those are pretty easy to dodge. Face/Off makes it work though and really makes the most of it with explosions and boat fist fights and jumping from one boat to another boat and you get it. It’s a good scene.
I feel one of the biggest compliments you can pay a long movie is that it never feels its length. Face/Off is nearly two and a half hours long but it is an incredibly breezy two hours. It never lets up and always walks a very fine line between playing it completely straight while at the same time amping everything up to 11 and beyond. It’s also top tier Cage, if you consider top tier Cage to be Cage at his most unhinged, which I definitely do. It’s as fun a movie now as it was 20 years ago and easily recommended.
What kind of impact did the movie have? This should have been the movie to catapault John Woo into stardom in America and he did direct Mission Impossible 2 three years later. Of course that is widely considered the worst of the franchise (I don’t dislike it as strongly as others but it’s hard not to rank it at the bottom of the Mission Impossible pile) and then three years after that he was doing Ben Affleck’s Paycheck…a movie I will admit to having some affinity for but I feel even Ben Affleck himself wouldn’t join me in that feeling. So unfortunately it wasn’t the launching pad that Woo deserved.
This was definitely Cage at the peak of his career and he had a number of hits after this one before he joined the world of direct to DVD Hayden Christensen movies. City of Angels directly followed this, and then we have Gone in 60 Seconds, Bringing out the Dead, Adaptation and several others in subsequent years. Hell he had a good 10 years left before movies The Wicker Man and Ghost Rider would start to seal his fate.
Then there’s Travolta. It is in this moment, as I gaze upon his filmography on IMDB, that I don’t have a strong affinity for too many movies he made after this one. It’s really just Swordfish. But I mean, he made Swordfish so yeah I think things turned out ok for Travolta after this one!