Should I Watch..? 'Face/Off' (1997)
What's the big deal?
Face/Off is an action thriller film released in 1997 and was written by Michael Collery and Mike Werb. It was the first major Hollywood release that Hong Kong director John Woo was given greater creative control over (his debut Hollywood release was actually Hard Target with Jean-Claude Van Damme in 1993) and was a critical and financial success, earning over $245 million worldwide. It brought Woo's signature 'gun-fu' style to the attention of a wider audience and without it, one might reasonably argue that The Matrix might never have happened. It also ensured that John Travolta's career renaissance continued and also demonstrated than Nicholas Cage could competently perform in action movies as well as more serious fare.
What's it about?
FBI Special Agent Sean Archer is the sworn enemy of terrorist Castor Troy after he accidentally killed Archer's son during a botched assassination attempt. After cornering Castor and his accomplice Pollux at an airport outside Los Angeles, the ensuing shoot-out puts Castor into a coma. But Archer is not celebrating - Castor had told Archer that he had planted bombs around the city set to go off in a few days but hadn't told him where.
Archer's only hope is to undergo radical surgery where he has Castor's face transplanted onto his own and attempt to convince Pollux into telling him where the bombs are hidden. But as Archer/Troy sets off to save the day, Castor wakes up and soon discovers Archer's plan. So after a bit of surgery of his own, Castor - now wearing Archer's discarded face - sets off to wreck Archer's life further and he starts with his wife Eve and teenage daughter Jamie...
What's to like?
If you're new to John Woo's work then prepare to witness every Hollywood action film cliché of the last twenty years. He has moved the genre away from being generic shooters and into works of art, introducing slow motion sequences (usually involving birds), guns in both hands, people shooting whilst diving through the air and hyperkinetic sequences and stunt work. It is breath-taking stuff - no surprise that Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and Sam Raimi (and myself, I might add!) are all big fans of his work. Indeed, Tarantino once said that Woo does for action films what Michelangelo does for ceilings!
While the story might be a touch on the daft side, Travolta and Cage give Face/Off their all. Getting your head around the fact that for most of the movie, their characters are playing each other, the movie offers something a little deeper than you might have expected if you're used to the likes of Stallone or early Schwarzenegger movies. But the film rarely lets up, only pausing to allow some emotional exchanges between Cage and Gina Gershon as one of Castor's flunkies.
- In The Rock, Nicholas Cage's character drives a beige Volvo. After escaping from prison in this film, Nicholas Cage's character also drives off in a beige Volvo. No explanation as to the significance of this fact has ever been given.
- Sean Archer stands for the star sign Sagittarius which is opposite the star sign Gemini, whose two main stars are called Castor and Pollux.
- The boat chase at the end of the film was originally intended for Woo's earlier film Hard Target.
What's not to like?
Action fans might already be accustomed to Woo's work and the reliance of old and familiar tricks might test the patience of those viewers who have seen the likes of Mission: Impossible II, Broken Arrow or arguably his greatest work, the Hong Kong action thriller Hard Boiled.
Those same fans might also feel that the film loses its way in the middle with the subplot involving Gershon's character and her child. Woo likes to soak his movies in hidden subtexts and although it does enrich the material somewhat, it can feel a bit much at times. I'd rather have Travolta and Cage shooting the set up in slow-motion all day instead of adding further emotional complexity to a movie where you already need to concentrate.
Should I watch it?
Definitely worth a shot. If the above trailer hasn't whetted your appetite then chances are, you're not really a fan of these mindless shoot-'em-ups. But if it did then you'll enjoy one of the best old-school action movies available. It offers you something a little more complex than you might expect from an action film with a silly gimmick as well as keeping your attention glued until the last bullet casing hits the floor. Woo's best American effort so far.
Great For: action fans, film studies students, teenage boys
Not So Great For: lovers of period drama, your grandparents, someone who'd rather read a book
What other films should I watch?
Speed remains probably the best 90's action film with a silly gimmick as it is not only just as thrilling but also injects some much needed humour into proceedings as well. For something a bit more generic, Bad Boys is also an overly stylised shooter from producers Simpson and Bruckheimer but with great comic banter between Will Smith and Martin Lawrence.
Otherwise, my advice is to watch this. Woo's other films might match this in terms of action content but Mission: Impossible 2 and Broken Arrow both lack something. For my money, Woo's best work was produced back in his native Hong Kong - Hard Boiled is an excellent cop shooter movie that also uses a lot of Woo's trademarks as well as Chou Yun Fat in blistering form. You can see it influencing the likes of The Matrix and Desperado and is a superb action flick.
Sean Archer / Castor Troy
Castor Troy / Sean Archer
Dr. Eve Archer
Mike Werb & Michael Collery
Release Date (UK)
7th November, 1997
Action, Thriller, Sci-Fi
Academy Award Nomination
Sound Effects Editing
© 2015 Benjamin Cox