Paramount // 1997 // 140 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // September 4th, 2007
In order to catch him, he must become him.
Heart, soul, and wit, three elements often lacking in "action" films, are prominently featured in John Woo's Face/Off. When it comes to action sequences, Woo (Hard Boiled) is the master, and his set pieces here are nothing short of breathtaking. Add to that a plot full of freaky twists, characters that rise well above caricature, and fully realized performances, and you've got a modern-day action classic.
Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas) and Sean Archer (John Travolta, Get Shorty) are sworn enemies, each out to get the other. Troy is a terrorist and Archer a dedicated FBI agent. For Troy, mayhem is sport, but for Archer, it's personal: A bullet from Troy, meant for Archer, killed the agent's 5-year-old son.
Castor and his brother, Pollux (Alessandro Nivola, Laurel Canyon), plant a dirty bomb in L.A., but as they make their escape, the feds, led by Archer, descend on them, and 25,000 gunshots later, Pollux is captured and Castor is in a coma.
The feds need to find out where that bomb is, and Pollux knows, but he talks to no one except his devoted brother.
So Agent Archer agrees to undergo radical surgery: Both he and the comatose Castor have their faces removed. Castor's face is attached to Archer's head, a microchip implanted in his throat simulates Castor's voice, and his beefy body is trimmed to resemble Castor's more athletic form. His own face will be preserved in the lab while he goes undercover to a prison so high-security, it makes The Rock look like a daycare.
Only a select few people know about this, and they do not include the president, the governor, his boss, the prison warden, or Archer's wife (Joan Allen, Nixon) and teenage daughter. But that's all right; he'll be back in a couple of days, have his face put back, and no one will be any the wiser.
But while Archer -- now played by Cage -- is on his mission, Castor Troy wakes up, faceless. A couple of calls to some evil friends later, and the doctor is in, fitting Castor with the only face available on such short notice. When the operation is over, everyone who knew about Archer's mission is silenced.
Now, Archer is trapped in prison, and Castor -- now played by Travolta -- assumes the identity of his nemesis, frees his brother, and takes his place as a high-ranking federal agent.
And he takes his place as husband and father in the Archer household.
If John Woo's earlier films were bullet ballets, then Face/Off is an opera. It offers a lavishly perverse and ludicrous plot, extravagantly emotional performances, and action scenes as perfectly structured and lyrical as an aria.
In an interview on the disc, Woo talks about how much he was influenced by Hollywood musicals. Here, every action sequence is like a musical interlude, perfectly choreographed and fluid. Some bullets fly, others float languidly toward their marks in slow motion; the kind of quick-cutting that made us believe Richard Gere and Catherine Zeta-Jones could dance in Chicago is employed to draw us into chaotic events of slaughter. But there is precision in this chaos, and these scenes are frenzied without being incoherent. Woo extends many of his shots ever-so-slightly, so we have time to register not only what is going on, but who is involved. Since this film is largely character-driven, the action sequences take on increased urgency as the story progresses, highlighted by a remarkable scene scored, in part, with "Over the Rainbow."
Much of the fun of Face/Off is due to the performances. Travolta and Cage seem to be having a blast here, playing a good character as evil, playing an evil character as good, and playing at playing each other. The fact that both characters are more complex than the standard hero and villain helps quite a bit.
Travolta's Sean Archer is a heavy, joyless man whose in perpetuity grieving for his son has become a luxury that is alienating his wife and daughter. When Castor Troy "takes over" as Archer, he is more Mary Poppins than Kaiser Soze, helping right the family problems. He becomes a passionately romantic husband and a savvy and understanding father (although the leering looks at daughter Jamie are anything but paternal). Far huskier than Cage physically, Travolta successfully mimics the actor's mannerisms and graceful movements.
Cage has it a bit tougher, starting out as the decadent and deranged Castor and then switching to the morose, brooding Archer, who is pretending to be a gleefully psychotic criminal and the person he hates most in the world. With his expressive face, limber movements, and conflicted persona, Cage is a pleasure to watch. His Archer-as-Castor frequently gives way to emotions unseen in Travolta's Archer, re-humanizing him, with the character's stoic façade crumbling as all variations of his worst nightmare -- his home, his wife, his child, his work, his whole life taken over by a monster -- come to pass. If there is redemption in this story, it is not the redemption of the evil character, but of the good one.
As their "ladies," both Allen and Gina Gershon (Bound) make strong impressions. Gershon, in particular, is excellent here as Castor's nominal "moll."
Paramount, which released Face/Off bare-bones in 1998, has given us a nice two-disc special edition this time. The anamorphic transfer is excellent, and there is a butt-kicking Dolby 5.1 audio mix. We get two feature-length commentaries, one with Woo and writers (and co-producers) Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, and the other with just Werb and Colleary -- but this is something of a cheat. The track with Werb and Colleary is the same track that they recorded with Woo, with a few other comments added to compensate for Woo's absence. The track with all three is quite good on its own. If you just can't get enough of this movie, listen to both tracks, but if you skip the writers' commentary, you'll only be missing some trivia.
There is a collection of deleted scenes with optional commentary by Woo and the writers. A couple of these scenes could have stayed, but like most deleted scenes, they add little to the film. (One, interestingly, features Travolta-as-Archer weeping over his dead son.) An "alternate ending" is really just a tag-on to the existing ending that would have given the film an unnecessarily enigmatic punch line.
Disc Two offers an hour-long "making of" feature that includes interviews with all the major participants, some shot 10 years ago (Travolta, Cage, Allen, and most of the actors) and some shot recently (Woo, the writers, the producers, and other production personnel). This is not a standard "puff piece." While, naturally, everyone praises everyone else to the heavens, there is also a lot of deconstructing of themes and techniques, behind-the-scenes stories, deleted and alternate scenes and takes, stills, and so on. Also included is a half-hour profile of the director, "John Woo: A Life in Pictures." If you are not familiar with Woo and his work, this short documentary is a good introduction.
While most action films ask you to suspend disbelief, Face/Off demands that you bind and gag disbelief, and then take it in the backyard and shoot it 25,000 times. This is Woo's world, and your silly logic questions are not welcome.
I watched this disc with a friend who had never seen Face/Off, and while he loved it, he also had a lot of impertinent queries, including:
"If there's a microchip in his throat that can be dislodged by sneezing, how come nothing happens when that guy beats him almost to death?"
"How come putting John Travolta's face on Nicolas Cage's head made Nicolas Cage's body fatter?"
"Why can't he prove who he is through fingerprints?"
You may have others.
My answer to them all? Because John Woo says so.
Thanks to Woo, Travolta, and Cage, a story that could have just been a ridiculous throwaway excuse for a bunch of action sequences becomes a film that succeeds on several levels. Paramount has given us a great-looking disc with some solid extras. Recommended.
Sean Archer, get over your guilt. You are free to go.
Castor and Pollux, you get a one-way ticket to Hades.
John Woo, it's been 10 years since Face/Off. Don't you think it's time to give us another great action film?
Review content copyright © 2007 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 6.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Feature-length Commentary with John Woo, Mike Werb, and Michael Colleary
* Feature-length Commentary with Mike Werb and Michael Colleary
* "The Light and the Dark: The Making of Face/Off" (64:00)
* "John Woo: A Life in Pictures" (26:00)
* Deleted Scenes
* Pollux Troy Web Shrine
* DVD Verdict Review of Hard Boiled
* John Woo Reference Site