Federal agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) finally captures and incapacitates the international terrorist-for-hire Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). When it turns out that Troy has already activated the countdown on a hidden nerve gas explosive, Archer must find out where it is. To fool Castor’s paranoid brother and partner Pollux (Alessandro Nivola) into giving away its location, Archer undergoes an experimental facial transplant to assume Castor’s identity and be infiltrated into a maximum security prison. When Castor wakes from his coma, however, and steals Archer’s face in return, Archer must escape from prison and regain his own life.
Chinese filmmaker John Woo directed his first film in 1974, but it was his 1986 Hong Kong film A Better Tomorrow that made a worldwide impact and kicked off a new career phase as one of the world’s most acclaimed and influential directors of action cinema. His specific blend of double-handgun shoot-outs, slow motion, fluttering doves and unbridled homo-erotic male bonds of honour and destiny was widely copied, and his own films – including The Killer and Hard Boiled – were hugely successful. Eventually Hollywood came knocking, leading to his 1993 English language debut Hard Target and the 1996 follow-up Broken Arrow. Both were successful, but despite their general merits neither really felt like a proper John Woo production.
Face/Off was the first American production over which Woo had considerable creative control, and his fingerprints are visible all over it. It is packed with gunfights, and slow motion shots of characters diving for their lives in hails of gunfire. The relationship between Archer and Troy is a direct call-back to the intense and personal bonds seen in Woo’s Chinese language pictures.
Stars Nicolas Cage and John Travolta match Woo’s style perfectly, with each delivering a nicely heightened and deliberately melodramatic performance. This is not a film for subtlety. Both actors are also tasked, of course, with playing each other, and they both do an excellent job. The script, for all of its excess, actually does some interesting work with each character. For Archer-as-Troy, the experience of living as his nemesis begins to make him go gradually unhinged. For Troy-as-Archer, experiencing Archer’s damaged domestic life has a remarkable effect. He romances Archer’s wife Eve, which is an insidious and abhorrent act that the film – to its credit – openly acknowledges. At the same time, however, he acts as an arguably better father to Archer’s daughter Jamie (Dominique Swain) than Archer ever managed to be. Sadly this story thread is fumbled during the film’s climax, but for the bulk of the film it adds an unexpectedly intriguing wrinkle.
Among the supporting cast the real standout is Joan Allen as Eve, who despite the insane plot and over-the-top characters still manages to bring some heart and dignity to her role. The role does not call for the level of complexity and emotion she gives, but like a consummate professional she brings her A-game to a B-movie. It is enormously to the film’s benefit.
Face/Off was originally developed as a near-future science fiction film, and while Woo pushed the story back into the present day its genre credentials are all over it. The futuristic tech-heavy prison in which the disguised Archer finds himself is right out of the Fortress playbook, while the face-swapping technology itself is simply too unrealistic to be taken seriously in anything other than a science fiction context. Woo covers this with a surfeit of style, and it’s that style that either makes or breaks Face/Off for the viewer. You either enjoy Woo’s theatrical presentation or you do not. Whether you do or not is probably going to have the greatest effect on how you enjoy the film itself. For me it a tremendous amount of fun: exaggerated performances, slow motion doves, wild gunplay, and action scenes timed and scored like dance routines. It remains Woo’s best non-Chinese film to date.