4 StarsFace/Off is a mater-class in action-thriller cinema, featuring two unlikely action-stars who slyly deliver great performances amidst a cornucopia of violence. While neither Travolta or Cage were honored with academy recognition for these roles, it is riveting watching two well-known screen-presences impersonate each other for an entire movie. Helmer John Woo finally hits his stride after two awkward attempts at english language cinema, Face/Off and his follow-up Mission Impossible II are the high points in a career that has been disappointing since.
F.B.I. agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) and maniacal terrorist Caster Troy (Nicolas Cage) are foes. We know this because in the opening scene we are given a flashback montage that provides three things; 1) Caster murders Sean’s young son at a playground, 2) John Woo is not afraid of getting to the violence immediately, 3) Nicolas Cage always looks funny with a mustache. So for the ensuing ten years Sean Archer has been tracking Troy’s moves, always a step behind, of course. Until a flight booking error alerts the F.B.I. that Troy and his younger brother are on a tarmac within the city limits. A magnificently choreographed chase ensues between a jet and a humvee. This frenetic sequence climaxes with the capture of Troy, in a vegetative state due to the injuries sustained. This is the wild first ten minutes of a 140 minute action opus.
The plot developments dictate that Archer undergoing a medical procedure to map Troy’s face onto his own, in order to infiltrate the former’s gang and locate the whereabouts’ of a bomb hidden in L.A. The story really kicks into high gear when Troy awakens and forces doctors to turn him into Archer. So while Archer as Troy is undercover, Troy as Archer is living at his enemy’s home.
There is a subplot involving a futuristic jail that detains its prisoners with magnetic boots. Another interlude takes place at a drug den before exploding into a shoot-out aided by ‘Over the Rainbow’ on the soundtrack. These auteur shenanigans either make you love or hate the diminutive Woo. These small indulgences aside, there are three major action-set pieces that are so over-the-top that anyone would be the climatic battle sequences in a lesser movie.
Face/Off is a seminal film in terms of legitimizing the genre after the likes of muscle-bound bodybuilders and slick martial arts stars were falling out of favor. Travolta sizzles at the pinnacle of his comeback coolness period and Nicolas Cage is a solid anchor while adding another ‘classic’ to his (at this time unvarnished) filmography. John Powell’s excellent score and Oliver Woods beautiful compositions, which take full advantage of the widescreen format are treasures in themselves. Add in the fluid editing by Christian Wagner, the exuberant and imaginative script and it becomes clear why I consider Face/Off one of 1997s best films.
Director: John Woo
Stars: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen