Kevin: “They don’t make movies like that anymore” is a phrase that would certainly apply to “Face/Off,” although they didn’t really make movies like that before either. That’s because “Face/Off” is a true original: an ultra-violent summer blockbuster, with a hilariously gonzo premise played completely straight, starring two VERY over the top and fully committed performers (John Travolta and Nicolas Cage) at the height of their popularity, and with a director (John Woo) going for broke and channeling all of his idiosyncratic obsessions (driven men on opposite sides of the law, the balletic beauty of slow-motion gunplay, doves in places they shouldn’t be) into a perfect cinematic vessel, one he’s never been able to top since.
CJ and I decided to do a Tag Team on “Face/Off” after checking it out on the big screen again last month for its 20-year anniversary, and the passage of time has only reinforced the fact that we will never see a movie like it again, and it’s a miracle we even got it at all. I’ll assume anyone reading this already knows the plot of “Face/Off” by now, so I’ll start our discussion CJ with the most important aspect of the movie: the insane number of times characters do the “running hand down someone’s face” move over the course of this film:
When John Travolta does it to his son at the very beginning it seems normal because it just looks like a cute game you would play with a child, but no, apparently he does this to friends and family multiple times per day. His mental disorder is so ingrained that his daughter greets her newly adopted brother (hooray, now we have two emotionally and psychologically damaged kids to deal with!) by immediately doing it to him. At one point I guess we are supposed to surmise that his wife is upset with him because she turns away when he tries to do it to her, but I would just assume she is as sick of that as any grown person would be.
Now one of the biggest complaints people have always had with the whole “switching faces” thing is that it would be easier to swallow if the film were set in the future. Although we should note that the movie was released in June of 1997, and when Travolta (now Castor Troy) is reading his wife Eve’s diary it is clearly dated “September 21, 1997,” so technically it does take place in the future. And if we assume the diary entry was supposed to be somewhat old, the movie may even take place in the faraway time of 1998!
Although I’m not sure why the underlying concept of “Face/Off” would be easier to swallow if the movie took place in like 2021, since the underlying concept would be inherently absurd no matter what the date.
CJ: (Runs hand down Kevin’s face)
First of all I’m just letting you know that this was written by me and not an impostor who stole my face.
Now that we’ve established our security protocol, let’s talk about face/offing! The entire movie is based on the concept that a doctor who has never done this before will transplant Nic Cage’s face onto Travolta, and then everything will go according to plan. Now I’m fine with making up crazy concepts, but how is there not one person in the office who at least questions his ability to do this. It’s not like the doctor had mentioned how he’d been practicing face/offing on corpses down in the lab. It’s just, “Yeah, I’m pretty confident I can nail this on the first try. Why aren’t you in your hospital gown yet?”
But what’s funny is the science of it all isn’t what throws me off as the most impossible part of this idea. Here’s what gets me: Quick show of hands, who here has drawn and cut a circle out of construction paper? And how smooth were those edges? In no way can this doctor cut along these faces and not have jagged edges where he had to constantly stop and start over.
Even worse is when they all agree that no one can know about this operation, not even Sean Archer’s family. If it were me, I would specifically say, “Absolutely not. Tell as many people as necessary, especially my wife. I do not want to risk my mortal enemy who shot my son to show up and fuck my wife, and probably in some vile ways since he’s played by Nicolas Cage. Has no one else seen ‘Face/Off’?”
Kevin: Of course all that is completely forgotten about at the end when another doctor basically tells Archer (still with the face of Castor Troy), “No worries, when you wake up everything will be back to the way it was. It will be like nothing ever happened. We’ll even completely remove those thick scars Troy gave your face as well.” And they do, very easily. So what’s the deal, early in the movie Archer and his colleagues are in complete amazement at the whole notion of face/offing, but at the end it’s apparently such a common procedure that a third-year resident at Beth Israel can do it.
Are we sure this isn’t one of those ambiguous-type endings where Travolta is actually dead and this is all a fantasy? Think about it, the whole “go to sleep and you’ll look exactly the same as before” thing seems too good to be true. Then we have that kind of heavenly slow-mo of Travolta when he walks in the door with his brand new replacement son.
Also, why the fuck was the family just hanging out at home and not at the hospital? They didn’t even bother to pick him up! I know Eve obviously had some new shit to update her journal on, but when I had my wisdom teeth taken out I would have divorced my wife if she blew me off and made me drive home myself, much less after getting my face put back on.
Now let’s go back to the beginning and discuss the dual protagonists/antagonists of “Face/Off.” Each actor definitely commits to the insanity of this movie, but for my money the MVP here is Travolta. I would watch a version of “Face/Off” where he is the villain and a version where he is the hero, whereas Cage is great as evil Castor Troy but lays the pathos on a little thick at times as Archer. In the scene where Travolta first confronts him after switching faces, Cage’s attempts at conveying sadness and confusion make him look more like he’s auditioning to play Lenny in “Of Mice and Men.”
Meanwhile, once Travolta shows up as Troy in disguise he’s a fucking blast. I always laugh my ass off when his colleagues give their condolences about his best friend burning to death at the lab and he just nonchalantly says, “Yeah well shit happens.”
CJ: While Travolta is great, what I found interesting was how dumb Archer’s family is compared to how smart Castor’s family is (or at least just his brother Pollux). To wit, here is basically how each family reacted to the new and improved Archer and Castor:
(Archer drives right past his house where his wife is standing)
Archer: “Uh …”
Wife: “Hi! Welcome home husband, I know you drove right by our house, but hey, what are ya gonna do?”
Archer: “And your name is…?”
Wife: “Hahaha, off to work!”
Daughter: “I’m not confused at all by you looking at my ass and then smoking a cigarette.”
Castor: “Hey Pollux.”
Pollux: “You swapped faces with someone didn’t you?”
I don’t know about you, but I felt each family went to the extreme. It would have made more sense that both families would have been fine, then maybe noticed something slightly off, like Archer all of a sudden liked Coke when he’d always been a Diet Coke man. Then again, this is John Woo, so those Diet Cokes would have shot guns.
This brings me to another great aspect of “Face/Off”: the prison. How awesome was this place? First of all, it is in the middle of the ocean AND videos of peaceful animals play in the commissary. More importantly, everyone wears magnetic boots, so walking around is pretty slow and difficult, and really right there that solves basically all prison issues. How has no one thought of this before?
It’s also in the prison where we learn not only how awesome Castor Troy is, but also how loose John Woo likes to hold on to the reigns of his movies. So “Castor” can’t figure out why fellow prisoner Dubov is so angry at him, which leads to Pollux telling him that it’s because Castor “had a sex sandwich with his wife and his sister the night he was sent here.” First off, this will be my entry to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.
Second, that act is both hilarious and disgusting. Mostly hilarious. And actually not disgusting, but awesome. If you didn’t fear Castor yet, I’d have to imagine learning that he has no qualms about bagging your old lady and sister while you’re sent off to the pokey would put him up there with Jason, Michael Myers, and Coach Reilly from “The Mighty Ducks.”
Second, all Castor has to do is tell Dubov it wasn’t him, so how about we break out of prison together? Dubov responds yes, and there are no follow-up questions or lingering resentment. John Woo, you are a master at just getting to the next scene, logic be damned.
Kevin: I’m actually watching this again right now, and let me say that while I criticized some of Cage’s acting choices when he’s portraying the Archer side, his version of Castor Troy is so awesome that if he was a Bond villain he would easily be one of the best of all time. He sets the template for Travolta to follow, he totally conveys everything about his character you need to know, and he makes Castor a memorable antagonist in just a few minutes of screen time at the beginning.
Now going back to when Castor first shows up at the Archer home with Travolta’s face, is there a more hilariously unsexy attempt at sexiness in a movie than the slow-mo shot of Joan Allen’s pancake-flat ass in her Hillary Clinton-style pantsuit here?:
For a guy who seems to have no ethical, moral, or sexual restraints whatsoever, I guess we have to give Castor props that he gets way more turned on by Joan Allen’s rear end than that of Dominique Swain. Also, why does Joan Allen look like an old lady in this movie, and holy shit does she ever eat? There were a couple of scenes in this where I wanted to physically put a chicken finger through the screen to put a little bit of weight on her.
Another thing before I forget, remember when Travolta (as Troy) has killed the FBI director Lazarro and thus assumed his position (I’m pretty sure the President and Congress have some say over that matter, but whatever) and he barges into Eve’s hospital with the two thugs that Troy has apparently been employing for years (including the guy with the facial scars from “Braveheart” and “Sons of Anarchy”)? Does no one find it odd that the new acting director of the FBI is walking around with probably two known associates of Castor Troy, who if nothing else just look really sketchy?
And yes Pollux is also easily the smartest person in this movie, but let’s not forget that at the beginning he gets easily overpowered by Margaret Cho, so a lot of good those book smarts did for ya’ there four-eyes.
Now let’s talk about the prison section of the movie. At one point Archer escapes, which we all knew he would. I assumed when I first saw this that he would do the usual “Terminator 2” thing of knocking various prison guards unconscious or shooting them in the leg (let’s forget for the moment that plenty of people can die from head trauma or bleeding out from supposedly non-lethal gunshots). But nope, he actually just straight up guns down a few guards and stands by passively while Dubov kills more guards and techs. Then he pushes some buttons which frees all the prisoners from their restraints, allowing them to presumably beat the other guards to death.
Now you could claim that the movie is showing that even good people like Archer will do bad things in order to survive. But nope, this really has no repercussions for him and no one ever mentions it later; the movie treats it as a logical reaction since the guards were abusive to him. But they weren’t being abusive to Sean Archer, they were being abusive to Castor Troy. If that really was Troy, would Archer give a shit that they were beating on the guy who killed his son?
Also, yeah I guess the other prisoners (including a nearly unrecognizable Thomas Jane) obviously didn’t escape because they were in the middle of the ocean, but Archer didn’t know that. He could have helped facilitate the escape of literally hundreds of murderers, terrorists, rapists, etc. Then near the end he tells Gina Gershon basically “hey we’re all cool, keep on trucking” even though he watched her murder several SWAT team guys at the hideout. I find it ironic that Archer will do whatever it takes to avenge the death of his son, even as along the way he creates way more orphans than Castor Troy ever has.
Also about that prison, it’s obviously supposed to be some secretive “fuck you Geneva Conventions” prison under the ocean that I would expect is far enough away from land that any normal person would drown if they tried to escape. Yet when Cage finally gets out and we cut to him on what looks like the Deepwater Horizon, you can clearly see like the coast of Malibu about a mile away. Great location guys, I can’t believe Ivan Reitman or Stephen Dorff haven’t ever wondered about that super secret prison a mile from their beachfront properties.
Also, Cage jumps into the water after being fired upon by a helicopter. Then he’s just magically back in Los Angeles. How the hell did he swim back without that helicopter or the Coast Guard or anyone else spotting and intercepting him. Did that doctor give him gills as well?
CJ: Do you think Cage developed the character of Castor and then gave it to Travolta (and vice versa), or was it the other way around? My guess is it’s the first, as I feel like Cage was more likely to “get” what makes this movie awesome. That and his real life track record points to him possibly BEING Castor Troy.
And yes, how is there not even a little aside where one FBI agent leans over to another and gives a “Hey, what’s up with those really sketchy guys hanging with Archer?” Also about Lazarro’s death, “Archer” covers his mouth and basically hits him right? Does no one do an autopsy? I realize no one could imagine Sean Archer would kill his superior, but this could have been a good time to maybe connect the dots between two of Castor’s thugs becoming full-fledged FBI agents and then the boss dying. At the very least there would have been fingerprints all over his face, right?
No time to think about that, because it’s time for “Castor” to sneak into his home and confront Eve to let her know that it’s all a big misunderstanding. This leads to one of the most fantastic awkward scenes ever, where Eve has to tell her husband that his mortal enemy has been ALL up in there. He reacts the way any of us would had one of our siblings told us about walking in on mom and dad getting busy, but if it was me, I’d probably just run downstairs and start pouring bleach in my eyes. A great Marvel-type post-credits scene could have been them at a marriage counselor later on, and we would all laugh as the therapist didn’t know what was more confusing, Eve banging the man who killed her son, or the concept of face/offing.
Oh also, if she banged him and noticed no difference, this means the doctors altered his pubes right?
Kevin: On that note, another interesting idea this movie brings up is that Castor Troy pretending to be Archer is a way more attentive husband and lover than the real Archer was. Once again this aspect is kind of abandoned, but I admire the movie for even bringing it up. It kind of feels like of course Eve is happy to have her real husband back at the end, but you get the idea that she probably had the best sex of her life with the man who killed her son. That’s really messed up, and again what action movie in history has ever even broached that idea?
Referring to Lazarro’s death, right before that we are told Archer is being hailed on the cover of Time magazine, this just after he has executed a raid on Castor’s hideout which results in, from what we can see, the violent deaths of about 25 cops, a few small-time associates of Castor’s, and a couple of hookers, while the one guy they were after got away. Yet in the very next scene everyone is like “Attaboy Archer, you keep this up you’ll be Vice President by next week!”
Before we go further, let me link to this recent article about “Face/Off” that has some interesting tidbits:
1) So apparently the movie was originally supposed to be set like a hundred years in the future. I was under the impression John Woo totally ditched that and set it in the sort of present, but according to the article “Face/Off” takes place in 2002, although if you can find any indication of that in the movie let me know. Either way, the same screenwriters also wrote the script for what became “The 6th Day,” where Arnold Schwarzenegger has a clone that sort of takes over his role in his family (sound familiar?). Arnold has had worse movies by far, but “The 6th Day” has got to be one of his least memorable. I can only imagine what Paul Verhoeven or Woo would have done with an R-rated version of that premise.
2) Apparently early on Rob Cohen was going to direct this movie, but one of his major notes was that he wanted Archer and Troy to eventually work together to stop the bomb. You’ll note that Cohen eventually directed “The Fast and the Furious,” where the two characters are on opposite sides of the law but eventually work together to kill legendary Panasonic DVD thief Johnny Tran, while he later directed “Stealth,” where the actor who was supposed to be the new Matthew McConaughey eventually teams up with the evil sentient jet plane to rescue Jessica Biel from North Korea. So yeah, Rob Cohen apparently thinks anyone can work together; I can’t wait to see his new USA series where O.J. Simpson and Chris Darden team up to catch sports memorabilia bandits, and hilarity ensues!
3) Apparently the legendary scene where Cage says and then mimics that he wants to “Take his face …. offff” was completely improvised by Cage, which I think every one of us assumed but it’s good to be confirmed.
CJ: Quick aside about the SWAT raid on Castor’s hideout, when Gershon puts the headphones on her son we are treated to something that has become incredibly annoying in movies: the happy or positive song that plays while everyone fights and dies in slow motion. You may know it’s cousin, the crazy firefight going around a guy who’s got ringing in his ears from a nearby explosion (Kevin: See Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan” or Russell Crowe in “Master and Commander” for examples of this). Both have been very overdone in the last couple of decades.
Speaking of annoying, why do movies always give our heroes shitty families? (Kevin: See the awful nagging wife of every hero in a Michael Mann film for this.) This doesn’t make me want to cheer for the hero, it makes me want him to flee his life and run off with the bad guy. For Archer, he has a pissed-off wife who seems to hate him going to work, complains that he’s never around, but also doesn’t seem to want to be around him either. Then he’s got a bratty daughter who mouths off and dates Hyde from “That ‘70s Show.” Third, his son is a pussy who dies from a gunshot.
Meanwhile, look at Castor’s life: an in-her-prime Gina Gershon, a brother-in-law in Nick Cassavettes who loves drugs, a brother in Pollux who, umm … oh and a boy who watched an entire firefight with lots of blood and death and just held it together like a fucking champ.
This debate on family continues at Lazarro’s funeral, where Archer’s wife and daughter are easily held hostage (in a room that was full of cops), whereas Gina Gershon shows up armed to the teeth and ready to go down shooting. If you had to pick, which family would YOU want?
Kevin: Yeah let’s talk about that ending. Let me get this straight, the director of the FBI’s funeral is held in some small hot-ass open air Catholic church off a public beach with what appears to be about 20 people in attendance? Lazarro must have been a real dick, because neither the President, the Vice President, nor apparently anyone from the government bothered to make an appearance.
Even so, you would think that there would be at least a minimal amount of security at this thing, but apparently the world’s most wanted man Castor Troy can just walk into the place and symbolically light some candles in the room right next to the service, as well as pass a note to an alter boy to give to Travolta (you would think this, plus him angrily crunching up the note in his fist, would be noted by someone, including his wife right next to him, but apparently not).
Also not sure why the fuck Cage tipped him off with the note and then was somehow surprised that Travolta took his wife hostage. What the hell did he think was gonna happen?
Anyway, since it’s probably time we wrap this up here are a few additional random thoughts I had while watching “Face/Off”:
– After an amazing opening action sequence in which they have exchanged dozens of rounds using multiple guns and several re-loadings, Archer and Troy are face-to-face and both say they only have one round each because they know each other’s guns so well. Are you kidding me, Rain Man himself wouldn’t be able to keep that kind of counting straight.
– Dr. Walsh to Archer: “Your blood types won’t match, but Pollux won’t know that.” Sure, but if our blood types don’t match … aww who cares, you look like you know what you’re doing.
– “Here is a state-of-the-art, morpho-genetic template.” At which point the doctor hands Travolta what looks to be a $10 plastic Halloween mask.
– Considering the alternative was a heretofore never-before-done surgery to turn him into a completely different person, didn’t Archer kind of abandon the whole “interrogate Troy’s associates” plan a little early?
– I get that Dr. Walsh didn’t think it was worth having even one night nurse or security guard on duty to monitor the condition of the faceless psychotic terrorist currently residing in his lab, but I feel like restraining Castor Troy with a couple of zip ties just in case would have avoided a lot of bloodshed.
– When Archer’s buddy at the hospital before the face/offing says he’s changing his mind and this is a suicide mission, Archer says, “If this doctor can do even half of what he says he can do … I don’t know, maybe it will work.” Uhh, if he can only do half of what he says he can do then you will be dead Sean.
– Apparently Archer’s wife keeps her journal – where she details how long it’s been since she and her husband have had sex – in an unlocked drawer in a desk in the living room of the house where anybody could find and read it.
– After the doctor implants the thing that changes Archer’s voice to Castor Troy’s, he tells him to be careful because even a strong sneeze could fuck it up. When he gets to the prison Archer as “Troy” immediately gets into a fight where people grab his neck and beat his face, so I guess it was stronger than you thought doc.
– Am I the only one a little weirded out about the big wet kiss on the lips a dying Cassavetes gives Gershon considering, you know, she’s his sister?
– Say what you want about Castor Troy, he gives Archer’s daughter good advice about how not to get raped by Danny Masterson, something I worry about all the time myself.
CJ: Let me just say that considering Archer is almost pathological about his “hand-down-face” move, why does no one in his family notice he completely stops doing it? I figure he did it so much that his wife and daughter eventually had to, for instance, exit the bathroom after taking a shit the way soldiers navigated downtown Mogadishu in “Black Hawk Down,” because they never knew if Archer would be around the corner waiting to pull it on them.
Kevin: Well CJ let us end on this hypothetical: the next time I saw you, what would I have to say or do to prove that it was actually me and and that I didn’t switch faces with Anthony (who is nearly a foot taller than me and black, but in the world of “Face/Off” I’m sure they’d make it plausible).
I already know my test for you: If I said “Michael Bay is the biggest hack director of all time” and you responded with anything less than blood-boiling rage, I’d know you are an impostor and would shoot you right there, preferably with two guns in slow-mo amid a flock of white doves.
CJ: I consider it the greatest compliment that if I let such obvious slander stand that you would shoot me dead, because if that wasn’t me you’d obviously never let an impostor sully my good name and even better face; but if it WAS me then I would obviously have begun to lose my mind and you knew I’d never want to live like that. You are a true friend.
As for you, it’s quite simple. Every time I see you I will hold up a picture of Al Leong on my phone. Anything short of a high-five and you’re a goner.
Or I could take Joan Allen’s route and wait for you to not recognize me, talk in a different voice, forget my name, mention your love of “Bad Moms,” and then say how brisket is overrated, at which point I’d think, “Something is different with Kevin. Oh I know what it is, he got a haircut!”
Kevin: Now while I’d love to be able to conclude this Tag Team with one more shot of that bangin’ Joan Allen booty …
… let’s see “Face/Off” … offf (as Cage would say) in the most appropriate way possible: with a few more hands down people’s faces:
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