Face/Off is not a film about transformation, either because it simply isn’t there or because John Woo doesn’t stop for it. When Sean Archer (John Travolta) agrees to go undercover surgically altered to look like Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), the square Travolta character now fully inhabits the circular Cage hole. The transition is over pretty quickly. Face/Off is not about change, but about how the face we have and the role we are given dictates how we act. As soon as the act of transferring one actor’s soul to the other’s body is complete in the mind of the audience, the only task remaining is all performance. Face/Off is really about the actors that play in it, or that play any role, and no one’s insouciant bad guy grin can make it less than Shakespearean, when Cage in Travolta’s body makes love to Travolta’s wife for him.

Yes, Troy inevitably wakes up, without a face, and steals Archer’s face and kills everyone who knew about it. After rubbing it in his own face inhabited by his worst enemy, Troy goes to Archer’s home in Archer’s body (the pronouns are going to have an identity crisis in this review) and assumes a role with his wife and daughter. But here’s the rub, which is all about performance: Cage is still Cage beneath Travolta’s “ridiculous chin,” but in this setting he acts more like Archer than his old self. His wife (Joan Allen), who might be horrified to learn that her husband is a spicy maniac in her tofu lover’s body, seems to enjoy the first sex she’s had with “him” in months. Even though Troy is shown early to be a deviant brute, in his new body he goes beyond the call of duty to bring romance back to “his” wife. If he wanted to successfully hide as Archer, he would stay at the office late and run his hands through his hair a lot. Instead, he cooks dinner for his wife and even protects Archer’s daughter (Dominique Swain) from an abusive boyfriend. They have a moment together where he proves that he cares about her, while Archer has been neglectful and distant. At the very end, when his daughter is embracing the real Archer in his real body, did she perhaps forget that they never had that moment together? That an egomaniacal terrorist did a better job pretending to be her dad than her dad did?

Archer in Troy’s body also fulfills his role, obliterating a fellow inmate at a pseudo-science magnetized super prison, chanting “I am Castor Troy” with a look in his eye like he’s posing for a Halloween mask I would absolutely buy. He can’t fool Troy’s real brother (Alessandro Nivola), who’s so paranoid that the face-swap comes as no surprise, compared to the kinds of things he already thinks the government is doing to him. As for us, the performance is flawless.

The most exciting feeling that emerges out of Face/Off is the temptation to refer to characters by their soul’s identity rather than by their appearance. I am constantly checking myself as I write, not to refer to the evil Travolta as Cage because the ticks, the posture of their shared performance, is so animalistic and so accurate. Travolta learns to slither like Cage and Cage learns to look like he doubts himself. You could not possibly award Oscars separately in this film: it is essentially one performance. I love Cage inside Travolta criticizing his own appearance, which is really Travolta critiquing his own face. I love Travolta inside Cage making a Cage meme face like he’s searching for it.

The film knows that characters drive it, and a tenacious moment about one third in utterly aligns the audience with the expectations of the suspense. The threat that incites the undercover flesh-mask experiment to begin with is a bomb Troy planted at the L.A. Convention Center. Any film would be expected, just from the easy nonchalance of this setup, to maintain the literal ticking clock straight to the end, like all those feature-length episodes of 24. Easily I can imagine Troy trying to stop Archer from finding his bomb from the inside. But the audience would be more invested in Archer trying to warn his family and regain his face. We would be interested in the characters, not the plot. In a single moment, Woo elevates Face/Off beyond a dull locomotive action film. He lets Troy defuse the bomb as Archer, excising that ticking clock from the plot completely. This is like cutting the audience out of a stifling corset: the pre-planned cop movie rigmarole gets dumped in an instant. And all that’s left is all that matters: all the tension realigns around identity, around how these men are playing their roles, and what will come of each of them blending themselves into their new castes.

Archer promises Troy’s old flame (Sasha Hassler) that “one way or another, Archer won’t be your problem anymore.” He sees the people swept up in his vendetta and is reminded of the one’s he left at home. He’s a better lover to her than Troy was, and he’s better to her than to his own wife. He meets Troy’s five-year-old son (the age Archer’s son was when Troy killed him). He cannot forgive Troy, but he inhabits him. He can’t survive without understanding Troy. A man obsessed with revenge could face no greater peril than that understanding.

All of this elevates Woo’s hectic Hong Kong-style moviemaking with characters that emote so much it’s funny, and explode so much it’s un-survivable. Woo packs Face/Off with heat, with pyrotechnics and miniatures and lots of slow-motion glass. A house of posh drug addicts has a shoot-out with FBI goons to the tune of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The film careens towards a boat chase that may be the best in the business. Boats scrape against each other, explode through each other, and Woo’s ability to keep track of his actors’ misty-eyed straining lips is a thing of considerable beauty, in an age of shaky and unconfident choreography. The stunt work is magic: wire-fu that doesn’t feel like it.

Character development is that way too: development that doesn’t feel like it. Archer gets a convenient new son in the end, and his daughter likes him now, despite not seeing “him” since he scolded her at the film’s beginning. Face/Off discards its plot for a performance of self, like the ancient oriental stage-shows that used masks to symbolize identity, swapping them to symbolize a complete spiritual upheaval, one actor playing another’s body. Characters could steal each other’s souls by stealing their faces. They could live each other’s whole lives just with a sinister movement, a flick of tongue, a squinty eye. Face/Off is more theatrical than material ten times as serious. Cage has always had the allure of the unwarranted straight man – that edge of psychopathy just drives him into super meme-dom. Face/Off, if it is not his best film, is the one most worthy of him, for being most like him. Like his own face, it looks like serious work, but anything this fun to watch had to be grueling to make. Many stuntmen lost their eyebrows in the making of this film.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

John Woo

Mike Werb

Michael Colleary


Sean Archer/Castor Troy John Travolta
Castor Troy/Sean Archer Nicolas Cage
Eve Archer Joan Allen
Pollux Troy Alessandro Nivola
Jamie Archer Dominique Swain
Sasha Hassler Gina Gershon
Dietrich Hassler Nick Cassavetes

Official Trailer

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