Face/Off

Hong Kong master blaster John Woo follows Hard Target and Broken Arrow with his third American film, and he's clicking on all cylinders. Exciting and then some, Face/Off blends the director's supercharged images of balletic brutality and spiritual catharsis with an off-the-wall humor that allows John Travolta and Nicolas Cage to really let it rip. Scenes of high-voltage action vie with wild hilarity as two guys with guns switch faces and identities. It's a twisted take on Ingmar Bergman's Persona, but this time the mind is not the only lethal weapon.

Face/Off begins in terror. FBI agent Sean Archer (Travolta) is riding on a carousel with his 5-year-old son. On the hill above, a demented terrorist, Castor Troy (Cage), is getting Sean in his rifle sights. By mistake, Sean's boy is killed.

Six years later, Sean — haggard and driven — is still trying to bring him in. After a spirited chase, Sean nails Castor, who goes into a coma. Sean's doctor wife, Eve (Joan Allen), and their teen daughter, Jamie (Dominique Swain), harbor hopes of resuming a normal life. There's a catch: Castor's convict brother, Pollux (Alessandro Nivola), has information on the location of a biological weapon set to destroy Los Angeles. Pollux will talk only to Castor. The solution? Sean secretly undergoes special surgery that allows him to switch his face and body type for Castor's. Sean will join Pollux in prison and save L.A.

Preposterous, right? The script by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary lacks even a nodding acquaintance with logic but permits Woo to up the ante on psychological gamesmanship. While Sean is in prison as Castor, Castor comes out of the coma, grabs a gun, and forces the docs to get Sean's face and sew it on Castor. The real Sean is briefly stalled in jail, leaving the real Castor to play family man and Travolta and Cage to have the time of their lives parodying each other.

Travolta, who keeps getting better and bolder as an actor, goes wonderfully cuckoo as Cage, complete with bug eyes and shouts of "Whee!" At a mirror, he even mocks his love handles and "ridiculous chin." Castor has no qualms about hitting on Jamie, the hot daughter who thinks the imposter is her dad. Allen's reactions are funny and unexpectedly touching when the man Eve thinks is her husband warms up their marriage with a foot massage (a homage to Pulp Fiction) and long bouts of lovemaking.

By necessity, Cage does Travolta in less flamboyant tones. Sean is decent, and Castor's girlfriend, Sasha (Gina Gershon), is shocked at being treated like a lady and finding her psycho lover showing concern for her young son.

The sons are just one of the doubling effects that Woo uses to keep the tension pounding. Release comes in a classic shootout at a chapel on the beach. As ever with Woo, violence and sentiment collide with operatic intensity. You may not buy the premise or the windup, but with Travolta and Cage taking comic and psychic measures of their characters and their own careers, there is no resisting Face/Off. This you gotta see.

From The Archives Issue 424: June 21, 1984
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