On June 27th 1997, John Woo, director of Hong Kong action classics such as Hard Boiled (1992) and A Better Tomorrow (1986), released his third Hollywood film, following the relative success of Van-Damme vehicle Hard Target (1993), and nuclear-weapon-nonsense, Broken Arrow (1996). It was called Face/Off, and featured the twin-handed heavyweights of Oscar winner-come-blockbuster action hero Nicolas Cage, and Vincent Vega comeback kid, John Travolta, in a high-concept thriller so ridiculously brilliant, that any subsequent serpents on planes, or Jason Statham dicky-ticker actioners, feel tame by comparison.
To celebrate its premiere this Friday, the 19th of April on the Sony Movie Channel UK we look back at the two-faced legendary action movie.
Time appears to have consigned Face/Off to the so-bad-its-good section of the VHS library, which is the kind of dastardly act that Caster Troy would approve of. However, contextualising it for the ground-breaking genre film that it was, is important in underlining why it’s as much of an action game-changer as The Matrix, Mad Max: Fury Road, or anything the John Wick franchise has achieved.
The mid-90s heralded the decline of the machismo action star, with the early part of the decade dominated by the likes of Schwarzenegger (Total Recall, Terminator 2, True Lies) and Willis (Die Hard 2, Die Hard with a Vengeance, The Last Boy Scout). So it’s no surprise that James Bond made a return in 1995, with Goldeneye hoping to capitalise on the audiences desire for a new breed of action star. Similarly, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt emerged from Brian De Palma’s superb espionage blockbuster, Mission: Impossible. They were still action-heavy, built around stunning set-pieces, but with a different breed of hero pulling the trigger.
This brings us nicely onto Nicolas Cage. It’s important to remember this was a version of the actor shorn of the ironic love attributed to him today; he was a bonafide movie star, and an Academy Award-winner for Leaving Las Vegas in 1995. He’d always had a predilection for picking interesting projects, with Raising Arizona (1987) and Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) on his CV. However, right around the time Face/Off was being made, he was slap bang in the middle of an action blockbuster triumvirate that would make him one of the biggest box-office draws of the decade.
The Rock (1997), (one of the few Michael Bay films you can admit to enjoy), had grossed $335 million worldwide, and he’d follow up his turn as Stanley Goodspeed, with the equally ingenuously-named, Cameron Poe, in Simon West’s gloriously OTT Con Air, which had flown off with $225 million in receipts. Cage was a new kind of action star, one that audiences would queue around the block to see.
At the time, Cage’s own supernova career trajectory was matched only by his co-star, John Travolta, who was riding the surf from his Pulp Fiction (1994) renaissance, and rivaling his Face/Off nemesis for box-office hits. His power as one of the last of the Hollywood ‘stars’ meant that he could headline genuinely terrific vehicles, such as Get Shorty (1995), but also get viewers turning up in their droves for fluff like Phenomenon (1996) and Michael (1996). To have the two of these actors in an $80 million budgeted action movie, was akin to a ’90s Avengers Assemble.
Integral in getting the two to play cat-and-mouse, and the main reason why Face/Off became such a genre game changer, was John Woo. Originally touted as a Schwarzenegger/Stallone vehicle, since the days it had started doing the rounds in the early 90s, it’s hard to imagine that Woo ever thought either of those action giants would work with his more balletic style of cinema.
And there’s the key: the style of action, and how it was filtered to a Western audience through familiar genre tropes. We’ve seen boat chases and shoot-outs countless times before, but until Face/Off, you’d not seen them executed in this fashion. Woo’s flourishes have been riffed upon ad-infinitum, spoofed even, but back in 1997 they were mind-blowing, and when removing that cynical lens during a re-watch, the action beats stand the test of time over twenty years later.
Essentially a live action Tom & Jerry cartoon, the film manages to cram in so much Looney Tunes spectacle, that if feels like you’re getting about four movies for the price of one. There’s science-fiction body horror, futuristic prison drama, Fast & Furious level vehicular carnage, and the evolution of gun-fu into the Western action film that would make the practice of double-handed, slow-motion, balletic set-pieces, a staple of the modern Hollywood action film.
Punctuated by white doves, Mexican stand-offs, and more sparks than a Flashdance music video, the three main action sequences in Face/Off are all memorable.
There’s the prison break, which plays out like an arcade game, with Cage ascending the levels towards the exit, before the film doles out another cruel twist to the luckless Archer, pulling back to reveal that he was being held captive on an offshore oil rig.
That’s book-ended by the Last Crusade and Bond trumping close-combat speed boat chase. The fact the two are dressed in 007 style attire is surely no coincidence, as they navigate their way through a series of increasingly spectacular stunts, all culminating in a huge crash. It’s shown from multiple angles, with a refreshing clarity, and has a practicality and weight that’s all too rarely employed in today’s blockbusters, Fury Road aside.
In the middle, Face/Off‘s signature scene arrives in the form of a shoot-out, which might not sound unique in a film that dispenses gun cartridges by the minute, but when this is all orchestrated to the tune of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, it perfectly juxtaposes the innocence and purity of that recognisable melody, with the on-screen maelstrom whirring around a small boy wearing headphones. It’s an amped-up version of Woo’s own Chow Yun-fat baby juggling shoot-out scene from Hard Boiled, and it’s brilliantly executed.
However, Face/Off‘s real fireworks are delivered by Cage and Travolta. For all of the pyrotechnics on display, this ranks amongst the most enjoyable action movies of all time due to their dial-it-up-to-eleven, one-upmanship level of performance. Both are incredible at mimicking each-other; Travolta in particular revels in the chance to take the batshit-crazy baton from Cage after they swap faces. Nothing about it is subtle. The performances go hand-in-hand with the film as a whole: gratuitous, larger than life, and unrestrained in almost every aspect.
Face/Off premiere this Friday, the 19th of April on the Sony Movie Channel UK. Do yourself a favour and watch it. It is perfect Friday night viewing.