Friday 31 March 2023

Face/Off (1997)

Director: John Woo
Writer: Mike Werb and Michael Colleary
Stars: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen and Allesandro Nivola

Index: The First Thirty.

Well, it’s been a fun journey through Cage’s First Thirty films and it’s been an educational one for me. Watching him grow through good and bad movies, as well as good and bad acting decisions, I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for his talent. Following these up with a look at The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent was a sheer joy. So much more there makes sense to me now than would have done otherwise.

And what a way to end a First Thirty! I have seen Face/Off before, because I’m a fan of John Woo’s Hong Kong movies and this was the first time he had enough creative control to bring that high octane style to Hollywood. Watching afresh, decades after my last viewing, it holds up wonderfully.

As you might imagine from the poster, this is all about two people who want nothing out of life more than to stop each other. Everyone else is only in the film to be a human prop for one or both to use in that epic battle.

John Travolta is Special Agent Sean Archer who’s shot during the opening credits, while riding a carousel with his son, Michael, who’s killed with the same bullet. That bullet is fired from a sniper rifle by Castor Troy, who isn’t so much a criminal as a professional supervillain who should be locked up in Arkham Asylum. Needless to say, Troy is played by Nicolas Cage with every intention to go full on gonzo.

Six years later, Archer is working on an FBI anti-terrorist team and Troy is doing whatever sociopaths do, and I don’t just mean banging his head to a rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus while disguised as a priest. He’s got something planned for the 18th that’s really big.

Yes, it’s all stylised. Yes, Cage is outrageous, just as Travolta is a boring good guy, and both are tough. Yes, there’s action dripping off the screen from the outset. The first big scene has Archer finally catch his nemesis on the world’s second longest runway (it’s utterly ridiculous but it has nothing on Fast & Furious 6). There’s patented John Woo double fisted gun action, swinging on chains, dramatic standoffs.... all the good stuff us Woo fans want to see. When Troy is eventually blown down a windtunnel by a jet engine, it’s all finally over. Except that we’re not even twenty minutes into the film. It’s only just begun! We’ll have to wait for the inevitable scene with a dove in a church. Trust me on that one.

So, here’s where it gets complicated. Castor has a brother, inevitably named Pollux, who says that the 18th is the date for their biblical plague and won’t talk to anyone except Castor, who’s dead. Except he isn’t. He’s in a coma at the Walsh Institute where Dr. Malcolm Walsh can make Archer into Troy.

Bear in mind this is 1997 so the tech is both highly futuristic and notably dated. But this is a “temporary trade” using a “state of the art morpho-genetic template” that’s “completely reversible”. That’s B-movie gold, a whole dab of pseudo-scientific nonsense that only makes sense in the movies.

So, Archer can borrow Castor’s own face, go undercover in a brutal futuristic prison where everyone wears magnetic boots to get the dirt from Nestor, pass that back to the FBI and thus stop whatever’s set for the 18th. And it works! Except there’s a catch.

While Archer is still inside in his surgically applied Castor Troy disguise, a secret known only to select people, the real Troy wakes from his coma, murders the doctors and burns the clinic to the ground, after borrowing Archer’s face from its Futurama jar. So now, Archer is a locked up Troy with no way out but Troy is a very free Archer, ready to step right into his life. What’s an incognito hero to do?

It’s all a little schizophrenic but that’s what makes it such fantastic cinema. Cage now has to play Travolta playing Cage playing Castor Troy, while Travolta has to play Cage playing Travolta playing Archer. And that’s joyous!

It means that Cage, who started out in full gonzo mode, albeit a very bearable gonzo for once, is tasked with toning that way down to pass for a decent upstanding FBI agent, while retaining some psychopath because that’s who he is. It doesn’t hurt that he can take all credit for disarming a bomb he set as his real self in a way that makes his fake self seem like a hero.

And Travolta, who began as an obssessed agent with broken relationships to his family, has to turn it up to be credible as a legendary crazy dude, all while planning his escape from what seems to be an inescapable prison. It’s a freeing experience in some ways because now he’s not required to follow rules.

Oh yeah, this is fun! However, it’s fun on a few different levels. It’s fun as an action movie with two very capable actors living up to the expectations John Woo has for them. It’s fun as a psychological nightmare, for both of them but especially Travolta as Cage. He’s wearing the face of the man who killed his son and that man is now working his job, sleeping with his wife and corrupting his daughter. Talk about brutal trauma!

On a deeper level, it’s also fun as metaphor, most obviously in Archer’s daughter changing her look every week. We think it’s because she isn’t just a teenage girl but one traumatised by the loss of her younger brother and how her parents are broken by it too. Yet when Cage as Travolta sees this, he sees through it and tells her that it’s obvious that she’s been wearing someone else’s face since Michael died.

This is fun on every level there is, except for the one about believability. OK, maybe we can see through plenty of the stuntwork because it’s surely not Travolta and Cage doing much of it, but that’s no big deal.

However, just think about the premise for a single moment and it all falls apart. You have to let this film take you on a ride, suspending disbelief, and it’s a more glorious, more over-the-top, more action-filled action movie than The Rock and Con Air put together, while also tweaking our heartstrings with little twists in the tale that I won’t spoil. Woo was always a master at setting innocence in the middle of ultra-violence and he does that here with his usual sense of style, even putting a version of Over the Rainbow to fantastic use.

So this is fun and it’s a perfect way to wrap up Nicolas Cage’s First Thirty. He started out as a nephew but took a new name to become nobody, then became somebody, got noticed, got unnoticed, won an Oscar and ended up an abiding name, Nicolas Motherfucking Cage.

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