I can think of hundreds of better films, but Face/Off is some kind of zenith, like a pure slab of movie-making distilled. Beyond being a gleefully trashy amped-up B-movie delight, as gloriously dysfunctional as it is intoxicatingly sure-handed, John Woo’s best (and only good) American film is a blockbuster treatise on the nature of identity, the only American picture he handled that remains truly permissive to his personal predilection for films about the dualistic nature of identity and the loss and retention of self. Hard Target (dementedly designed climax aside), Broken Arrow, Mission Impossible II, and certainly Windtalkers and the abominably luke-warm Paycheck all feel like imposters, but Face/Off has the special sauce, that auteurist alacrity and deliciously eccentric sense of self that only Woo could bring to a production like this. Nervously coiled interpersonal drama interpolated with orgasmic explosions of pressured-violence, this radioactive tangle of a film is exultant movie-making from beginning to end.
A heavenly blasphemy, Face/Off is a guilty pleasure that demands we question why we feel guilty to revel in overt expression to begin with, especially when the characters in this film are eventually confronted with the absence of personal expression, or the mutation of it. To that end, Face/Off is the story of government agent Sean Archer (I would say John Travolta, but things get more liquid in this department soon enough) who finally captures his arch-nemesis Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage, but what I wrote about Travolta applies here) five years after Troy accidentally killed Archer’s son while trying to shoot Archer. Learning that Troy (in a coma) has planted a bomb somewhere in LA, Archer agrees to participate in a radical and supposedly reversible procedure. He has Troy’s face placed on his own and impersonates him in a prison, hoping to get the location of the bomb out of Troy’s imprisoned brother Pollux. But when Castor inadvertently wakes up and decides to impersonate Archer … well, this is a movie, you can go from there.
A melodramatic piston of a film, Face/Off also meditates on Woo’s doubled-identity fixation with occasionally transcendent results. Questions dance with the bullets, and the sparks are philosophical as well as visceral. The obvious concern, are we our body or do we have a body, is amplified by ruminations on acting. The film inquires into scholar Stanley Cavell’s old assertion that the movie star appeals to us because their essential self retains deep-down below the various characters and roles they adopt, and that we see in this permanence a hope that we can remain our essential selves despite the various performative masks we don, that society will mold us and symbiotically create us rather than tear us apart at the seams. Although Woo is no master theorist, the screenplay (by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary) not only engages with this fluid notion of self but sometimes even dares seem truly inconclusive in its answers.
Woo’s direction is unexpectedly flush with dizzying fits of formal mania, including the greatest injection of one of Woo’s trademark images: an impromptu split-screen with each principal on either side, fracturing their relationship in two. These visual metaphors are more lead-footed than truly liquid enough to suggest a notion of self that is fascinatingly shifting in boundaries, but Face/Off still thrums with the sheer pulse of cinematic invention, especially when Woo goes to town framing the two central characters in ways that increasingly suggest blockbuster action and ruminative meditation are soluble principles after all.
Face/Off makes no apologies for its blend of the muscular and the intimate, the phallic and the reflective, the inward and the outward, and for its glob of soap opera histrionics and dizzyingly florid directorial bravado. Woo’s camera pivots, pirouettes, gyrates, and frolics with the lurid B-movie about-faces in the plot and revels in the carnage without any preconceptions or inhibitions about what moral conundrums are appropriate for action films to explore. It suggests a bucking bronco not only stylistically but morally, with the two main characters (and actors) refracting grotesque parodies of the other, dancing like dueling front-men backed by Woo’s excessively flamboyant pyrotechnic show.
Any commentary on performance and self would be, if not mute, at least significantly damaged without its interpreters, and in John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, Woo has found two true-blue soloists, men who treat acting not as an ascetic channel to naturalism but a conduit for harnessing the fluorescent and ricocheting energies of showing-off as a portal into the soul. Both tasked with playing characters, playing their characters’ enemies, and then playing those enemies’ playing themselves (as well as, crucially, playing the other actor playing themselves), the electric and wild-eyed stylings of these two hammy philosophers do not merely constitute a circus freak-show but a kind of folksy retelling of Bergman’s Persona, if, of course, you hang out with particularly melodramatic folk. Although Woo’s temperament is essentially insoluble with the icy Swede’s, they are united in that they often favor a deliberate and overtly artificial style unencumbered by notions of naturalism or psychological realism. And although Woo adds a touch of interpretive dance, they are both linked to the theater, both willing to risk infidelity to reality in order to expose truths about our inner and metaphysical lives that can only be revealed through excess, in a realm of inner truth beyond outer reality.
Which is to say: in their own idioms, they both make movies in the proudest, old-school, to-the-rafters tradition of affected emotions that seem to discharge from the characters’ inner-most desires. Cage and Travolta obviously have nothing on Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullman, and Max von Sydow, but they do understand that the key to acting is not only forgetting the camera and burrowing into their characters’ souls but wielding and harnessing the camera, seeing it, acknowledging it, performing. Their theatrical star flourishes reveal the personalities of characters who demand attention, star performers in their own lives. These are two characters who secretly relish the opportunity to play the other, to become someone else as if to simultaneously experiment with their own identity, lay the construction of self bare as a fluid and malleable reality, and to bolster up their own egos by proving they can “be” someone else to the world. Beyond that, their lack of inhibitions about over-stating represent a potent shaking-off of the rationalist dictums of acquiescence to social mores about “valid” forms of emoting and being.
These mercurial performances are the cornerstones of a temperamental film. It isn’t as protean as a truly masterful work, but one cannot but admire – and be enraptured by – its verve, its gusto, its unmediated sense of self, its sheer force of being. At some abstract but also undeniably immediate level, that is the core of any action film, and as experiential cinema with a toxic, obstreperous kick that refuses to settle down, Face/Off rides its own ecstatic lift right into the stratosphere of the mind.