Face/Off (1997)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #28

It’s like looking in a mirror — only not

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 139 minutes
BBFC: 18 (cut)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 27th June 1997
UK Release: 7th November 1997
First Seen: TV, 22nd September 2002 (probably)

Stars
John Travolta (Saturday Night Fever, Hairspray)
Nicolas Cage (The Rock, Ghost Rider)
Joan Allen (Nixon, The Bourne Supremacy)
Alessandro Nivola (Mansfield Park, Jurassic Park III)
Gina Gershon (Bound, P.S. I Love You)

Director
John Woo (Hard Boiled, Mission: Impossible II)

Screenwriters
Mike Werb (The Mask, Firehouse Dog)
Michael Colleary (Darkman III: Die Darkman Die, Firehouse Dog)

The Story
FBI agent Sean Archer finally corners his nemesis, Castor Troy, knocking him into a coma in the process. Unfortunately, Troy has planted a bomb that will destroy Los Angeles, and the only other person who knows its location is his brother — and he ain’t talking. So Archer comes up with the perfectly sane and utterly foolproof plan to secretly have a face transplant and assume Troy’s identity. Unfortunately, the real Troy wakes up, takes Archer’s face, and kills everyone who knows the truth. Hilarity ensues! No, wait, it’s not that kind of movie — violent bloody action ensues.

Our Hero
Sean Archer, super cop. Looks like John Travolta, until he looks like Nicolas Cage. Don’t overthink it, it works just fine when you’re watching the film.

Our Villain
Castor Troy, super villain. Looks like Nicolas Cage, until he looks like John Travolta. Don’t overthink it, it works just fine when— wait, I did that bit.

Best Supporting Character
Castor’s brother, Pollux. Yes, that’s his name. Looks like Alessandro Nivola throughout.

Memorable Quote
Castor Troy: “Sean Archer here, who’s calling?”
Sean Archer: “Well if you’re Sean Archer, I guess I’m Castor Troy.”

Memorable Scene
The good guy’s teenage daughter — played by Dominique “Lolita” Swain, as if to ram the point home — is hanging out in her bedroom wearing next to nothing, when in walks the villain, who starts perving over her… oh, and he’s got her dad’s face at the time. This is the kind of scene you can have when your body-swap movie is rated 18, I guess.

Making of
According to IMDb, the studio wanted John Woo to take the slash out of the title, but he kept it so people wouldn’t think it was a hockey movie. I don’t know why you’d think it was a hockey movie without the slash, or why adding a slash magically stops it being a hockey movie, but that’s what it says.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Sound Effects Editing)
2 Saturn Awards (Director, Writer)
7 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Actor (both Nicolas Cage and John Travolta), Supporting Actress (Joan Allen), Younger Actor/Actress (Dominique Swain), Music, Make-Up)
2 MTV Movie Awards (including Action Sequence for the speedboat chase)
4 MTV Movie Award nominations (including Best Villain, shared between Nicolas Cage and John Travolta)
1 Golden Trailer Awards nomination (Best of the Decade)

What the Critics Said
“Travolta and Cage make superb adversaries, flip-flopping roles, first as hero, then as villain. What titilating fun to observe Cage seethe with venom and Travolta meet danger head-on, then see Cage become Travolta, as the latter adopts the unmistakable characteristics of the fiend. […] Face/Off is a masterpiece equal to the action classics Seven Samurai, The Wild Bunch and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” — Roger Hurlburt, Sun Sentinel

Score: 92%

What the Public Say
“Gorgeously shot with lots of Ol’ West style close up on the eyes while silence is only interrupted by the sounds of gun magazines falling to the ground. Woo’s directorial vision and the clever exchange of snark and built up bitterness displayed in the dialogue are just two of the beautiful components displayed in the first 30 minutes of this film that set the tone of the fucking masterpiece that it is.” — Amy Seidman, This Film Is Better Than You, Deal With It

Verdict

After making his name as an “heroic bloodshed” director par excellence with films like A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and Hard Boiled, John Woo headed for Hollywood… and made Van Damme vehicle Hard Target and nuclear-warhead-theft thriller Broken Arrow. But after those he made this, surely one of the best action movies of the ’90s. Its sci-fi high-concept allows Travolta and Cage to have a whale of a time in each other’s bodies, and Woo’s trademark OTT action is as exciting as ever.

Next: #30, ah-ah! Saviour of the universe!

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12 thoughts on “Face/Off (1997)

  1. Bloody hell, five stars eh? Don’t recall it being that good, and I was something of a nut for John Woo films back in the day. Haven’t seen it for years, maybe I’ll have to give it a go. To be honest though it stars two of the most irritating actors I can think of so thats why I gave it a wide berth since its initial release. Cage and Travolta in the same movie? Horrible.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s not a “definite 5” like some of the others — doesn’t help that I haven’t actually seen it for years, either (I keep thinking I should’ve built in more time to re-watch all of these 100 before writing about them, but hey-ho) — but as I was reading up on it to find the linked reviews, it reminded me of all the things I loved about it. It also gets bonus points for its Woo-ness — probably a lot less remarkable to anyone who’d seen his earlier work, but I hadn’t (still haven’t seen much of it, actually — something else I need to make time for).

      Travolta and Cage can both be pretty loopy, which is part of what makes it work for me. I suppose there’s an element of campiness in that, in a way, but I don’t think it would be as much fun with two ‘straight’ performances.

      Like

      • Oh yeah, regards Cage & Travolta, I can see how their campness might enhance the film. All the baggage from their onscreen persona’s and film histories lends another level to the film. Like an in-joke for film buffs while the general public just get suckered in by their familiarity with them. I think thats why casting is so deliberately lazy sometimes; joe public finds it cosy and comforting. Me, I sometimes think it would be fun to have unknowns in every film. It would add a sense of reality to seeing unknown faces playing characters we don’t yet ‘know’. Hardly a realistic prospect while Hollywood continues paying $20 million per picture to ensure certain stars headline their films.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’s fascinating how much people will sometimes infer about a character thanks to who’s playing him/her and what other associations the viewer has for that actor. Of course, intelligent filmmakers can tap into that, or deliberately play against it.

          I agree about unknowns, but it seems stars are actually still a big draw, despite what we’ve been hearing for 10+ years about how they no longer matter. It’s like today, all the fuss about Scarlett Johansson starring in Ghost in the Shell. I’ve seen several articles along the lines of “these X Japanese actresses would’ve been a better choice”, but not a one of them has the worldwide recognisability of ScarJo. That — not whitewashing, or endemic racism — is the reason she’s the lead in a big-budget sci-fi actioner and they aren’t.

          Like

  2. This is a great movie, despite any imperfections, and is one of John Woo’s few successful Hollywood films so far.

    If you’re really game, go back and watch some of his Hong Kong-produced action films (pre-1993), most of them starring Chow Yun-fat, including A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, and Hard Boiled. You may have to bear with Cantonese dialogue and English subtitles or listen to dubbing. As you watch them, notice recurring themes and signature trademarks in these movies; THEN watch Face/Off (again, if you’ve seen it already), and see if you can spot moments within the movie that make you feel like you are reliving some of his Hong Kong action genre magic.

    Liked by 1 person

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