Face/Off, the John Woo action film starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, marks its 25th anniversary since its June 1997 release.
I was too young to appreciate Nicolas Cage for his mannerisms when I first saw this film in 1997. In hindsight, I was probably a few years too young to see the movie, what with the R rating and all. But then again, I had already watched dinosaurs tear apart two different islands by this point in my young life. I also recall reading the movie tie-in novel. Remember when movie tie-in novels were a thing? I was almost always reading a tie-in novel during the family vacations. There’s a good chance that it’s still sitting on the bookshelf back home unless I decided to get rid of it.
The film stars out with a prologue that sets up the rest of the film. FBI Special Agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) is enjoying a nice day with his son, Michael. Unbeknownst to him, Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) has set up shop in the distance. Troy aims for Archer but ends up killing his son, Michael. Six year’s later, Sean is still looking for him in what becomes a major cat-and-mouse game with the two pursuing each other. Sean catches him but while Troy is in a come, the FBI tries to get information from Pollux Troy (Alessandro Nivola) about a bomb’s whereabouts. All we know is that it is somewhere in Los Angeles.
Out of options, Archer resorts to Dr. Malcolm Walsh’s (Colm Feore) face transplant procedure. Little does he know that Troy will eventually wake up from his coma. In the meantime, Archer becomes Troy and gains the necessary information from Pollux in the high-security prison. Because Troy wakes up, Walsh is forced to give him Archer’s face. Of course, the sadistic terrorist ends up destroying all evidence, ruining Archer-as-Troy’s life in the process. And again, it becomes a cat-and-mouse game with their families soon becoming apart of it.
The first major set piece takes place at Troy’s headquarters, where Archer-as-Troy learns Troy has a son, Adam, with Sasha (Gina Gershon). He sees so much of Michael when he looks at the kid that you can’t blame him when emotions get the best of him. Before you know it, Troy-as-Archer raids the place and it becomes a bloodbath. Call it absurd or what you will but Archer approaches his wife, Eve (Joan Allen), and tells her that fake Archer is Troy and that he’s the real one. It isn’t until she tests fake Archer’s blood that she believes him. We then reach a second set piece, the shootout that follows Lazarro’s (Harve Presnell) ceremony. It results in Sasha’s death when she takes a bullet for Eve.
Finally, Archer and Troy really duke it out in yet another shootout and eventually make their way to the docks for a boat chase. Right when you think that the set pieces couldn’t outdo each other, this one is the icing on the cake. Everything comes to a head with Troy’s death and then Archer fulfills his promise to Sasha by adopting Adam.
There’s a lot to appreciate about this film. Twenty-five years after its release, I love watching Travolta and Cage basically playing each other. It’s one thing to watch Cage pull off his usual mannerisms. To see Travolta being able to go full Cage is a completely different level of acting. Behind the camera, director John Woo has a solid grasp for what he wants in the action sequences. Ah, 1990s action movies where filmmakers went for practicality rather than depending too much on CGI for visual effects.
Say what you will about Travolta and Cage in this film but it could have been different. Screenwriters Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, who were inspired by White Heat, wrote the film with both Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in mind. Can you imagine a universe where these two actors are playing Archer and Troy? It certainly would have been a different film but it still would have made a lot of money! This film brought in almost $250 million against an $80 million budget. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it because it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the roles.
Elsewhere, John Powell gets his big break by composing the score while Hans Zimmer produces it. In retrospect, Zimmer producing makes sense because Powell had been a member of Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions. Powell would go on to score a number of animated films in his early years. He would also become a frequent collaborator with Doug Liman. The rest is history.
The film was nominated for Best Sound Editing at the Oscars. But as we all know, it would lose to Titanic during the ceremony. Maybe it wins in another universe? In any event, it is said to have inspired Internal Affairs, which led to Martin Scorsese finally taking home Best Director with the Oscar-winning film, The Departed.
Face/Off might be over-the-top as a cat-and-mouse action film but Woo directs both Travolta and Cage to some of the best performances in their career.
DIRECTOR: John Woo
SCREENWRITERS: Mike Werb & Michael Colleary
CAST: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Alessandro Nivola, Gina Gershon, Dominique Swan, Nick Cassavetes, Harve Presnell, Colm Feore, John Carroll Lynch, CCH Pounder
Paramount released Face/Off in theaters on June 27, 1997. Grade: 4.5/5
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