The Film: Face/Off (1997)

The Principals: John Woo (director), John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Gina Gershon, Alessandro Nivola, Dominique Swain, Thomas Jane, John Carroll Lynch

The Premise: Travolta and Cage imitate each other’s mannerisms while shit blows up. (Also, there’s pigeons.)


Is it any good? Face/Off was always one of those ‘90’s blockbusters that seemed to surpass the average “explodey-go boom” – sure, it’s a hokey premise, but it’s a golden high-concept; Travolta and Cage are always fun to watch (even if the movie around them sucks); and John Woo had total creative control for the first time since coming stateside. And when I watched it last night, for the first time since seeing it on a pan-and-scan VHS over a decade ago, I can’t deny that I enjoyed myself … but probably for all the wrong reasons.

It’s not that Face/Off is bad, per se; for its time, it was very good (remember, 1997 was also the summer of Batman & Robin). But it has absolutely not aged gracefully, and watching it now is an invitation to MST3K. Twenty years later, Woo’s bag of tricks (the birds, the slow-motion for irrelevant details, seven different cuts for the same action) plays like parody, and tonally, the flick is all over the map – casual brutality sits next to outright goofiness, science fiction is sold to us with a straight face, character motivation is thrown away for convenience, and there’s no such thing as subtext when characters state their psychology outright all the time. (I particularly like the much-parodied exchange where characters repeat the phrase “face off” about fifty times consecutively, in case we didn’t quite get what the title meant. “Bra-fucking-vo”, indeed.) Travolta and Cage may imitate each other’s mannerisms, but Archer and Troy as characters really don’t seem to care, and act in ways that would blow their cover repeatedly (see Travolta getting the bomb squad to just leave ten seconds before downtown LA gets destroyed, or Cage’s awkward antagonism toward Pollux Troy).


According to IMDB, the script was initially set in a vague “near future” and changed to 1997 at Woo’s insistence. The interesting thing is that some of the ideas in play here are interesting and remarkably prescient, and I appreciate that an attempt was made to make the science seem vaguely plausible. But here, in the actual near future? The film plays with a goofy naivete, a weightlessness and lack of consequence; and our present reality collides with this stale popcorn in uncomfortable ways. It’s impossible to keep a straight face when Travolta talks about launching a “one-man war on terrorism”, and it’s also impossible not to cringe when Erewhon Prison is referred to as a place where “the Geneva convention is void”.

Movies are a product of the time in which they’re made – we know this, and adjust our expectations accordingly. But if a flick is grounded in something real, recognizable, and human, it can transcend its initial time and place and still have resonance years later – Face/Off is not one of these films, and maybe I shouldn’t have expected it to be.


Random anecdotes: The project was initially developed for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. After they bowed out, it went to Harrison Ford, who was to co-star with Michael “I-could-eat-a-peach-for-hours-and-then-get-cancer” Douglas (who actually stayed on as producer once the project went to Woo). In my head, at least, both of these versions seem more interesting. Arnold & Sly would’ve tipped the flick into “full cartoon”, while Douglas and Ford at their prime would’ve brought a gritty realism and a great subversion of their usual personas – imagine Basic Instinct-era Douglas trying to convince Joan Allen that he was her husband, or Ford playing up the creepy incest vibe in the “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” scene. That movie could’ve been a legitimate classic.

The studio didn’t want to fund the famed “Over the Rainbow” gun battle sequence, so John Woo funded it out of his own pocket. When the movie was a hit, the studio paid him back.

The alternate ending found on the DVD is nonsensical trash.

Cinematic Soulmates: Freaky Friday. The Departed. Broken Arrow.