FBI Agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) has been on the hunt for career criminal Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) for years, a search that was intensified six years previously when Castor accidentally killed Sean’s young son whilst trying to kill Sean. Finally, Sean has managed to catch and apparently kill Castor and incarcerate his brother Pollux Troy (Alessandro Nivola), but not before the pair have planted a bomb somewhere in L.A. With only a few days before the bomb is due to explode in an unknown location, the only way Sean can discover the location is to talk to Pollux, but the only person Pollux will trust is his brother. So, the only logical solution is for Sean to remove his own face and replace it with Castor’s, going undercover as the man he’s spent the past few years despising.
I cannot believe the film synopsis I’ve just written. There are parts of my brain shouting at me to go back and alter that opening paragraph, because surely that cannot be accurate. The very pitch for this movie is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. It’s more insane than Snakes on a Plane. The notion of toys coming to life at night is more believable than Face/Off. Jurassic Park is more plausible. David Lynch makes more sense. But here’s the thing; Face/Off knows it. There are multiple occasions throughout the film where characters try to explain or comprehend what they are doing, but they can’t because even they admit that it makes absolutely no sense, is stupid and cannot be believed. Does this make it acceptable that such insanity has been put on film? No. Does it make it more fun to watch? Yes.
The genius of Face/Off is that they’ve cast two lead actors, who both get to play the hero and the villain. You see – spoiler alert – Castor Troy ain’t dead when Sean Archer steals his face, so when he wakes from his coma and finds his facial flesh without a surface, the only sensible solution is for him to take Sean’s face instead and set fire to anyone who knew about Sean going undercover, leaving Castor to wreck havoc under the guise of Sean. It’s genius. The real Sean is stuck in prison with Castor’s face on, whilst the real Castor is outside, running riot with the persona of a hero cop in the FBI. Sean-as-Castor must therefore break out of the maximum-security-but-also-insane prison and go on the run as Castor, using Castor’s former allies, to try and claim his old life back and somehow convince other people of all the stupidity that has led to this situation. So Nic Cage gets to villain it up at the start, then become the hero who, now and then, has to pretend to be a villain, whilst Travolta starts off in stick-up-his-butt strict good cop mode, before becoming a sadistic antagonist with a penchant for grabbing the ass of any woman he likes, and making allusions to abusing Sean’s daughter, despite him looking like her father. That is some well-plotted scripting there. It’s complex, it’s creepy, it’s inspired.
However, the film is over two and a quarter hours long, and it doesn’t have enough action to fill that time. There are a few lulls throughout, and a heavy feeling that what we’re watching is the result of several scripts written independently of one another, with the final product having been picked and chosen from amongst the others. The individual segments work fine separately, but don’t quite gel together. That’s why we get a stretch in a prison that’s a giant magnet in the middle of the ocean (with Thomas Jane as a fellow inmate and John Carroll Lynch as one of the guards), but also some relationship and family dynamics with Sean-as-Castor having to work with Castor’s accomplices on the outside. Elsewhere, some aspects are so on-the-nose they’d give you a nosebleed. One of the most iconic images from the film sees Sean-as-Castor and Castor-as-Sean in a one-on-one gun fight, facing one another through a pillar that has a mirror on both sides, so they’re literally staring at the face of the man they each want to kill, it just happens that they are the ones wearing it.
Speaking of which, I’d seen this film before, but remembered the scenes of actual face-swapping to be hideously queasy, but they’re thankfully quite tame. There are some brief snippets of Nicolas Cage without a face, the longest of which is in the reflection of someone’s glasses, so my low tolerance for ickiness was fortunately capable of standing what was on screen.
It wouldn’t be a John Woo movie without copious, excessive amounts of slow motion, and this doesn’t disappoint, but it does frustrate with just how much there is. You could play a pretty adequate drinking game taking a shot every time someone reloads in slow motion, and drink double when it’s two ammo clips simultaneously. And, of course, doves, flying super slowly across the screen just before the climactic gunfight in a church. It’s the kind of climax where every swoop of the camera reveals a new character and two more guns to enter the ever-enlarging stand-off. It’s typical Woo stuff, but it works.
The film is far from flawless, but it is a lot of fun. Yes, the plot has more holes than literally any film I’ve ever seen, it’s entirely, utterly ridiculous and to think about it for any longer than the film’s running time will most likely melt your face right off, but that’s not the point of this movie. The point is seeing Nic Cage and John Travolta pretending to be one another, and trying to kind of kill themselves, but not. Sort of. Everyone involved knows how insane what’s going on is, and dammit that allows me to give it a pass. It’s the same with Demolition Man. No-one is claiming this to be a work of art, it’s a work of entertainment.
Choose Film 7/10