How Bad Is… Face/Off?
Face/Off is half a bad movie, and half a so bad it’s good chuckle-fest. Unfortunately you have to eat some serious sewage up front to get to the candy-corn center.
Ah, the nineties. Ah, action movies. Aw crap: action movies from the nineties. Action movies in the mid nineties were certainly… something. And pretty much the zenith (or nadir) of the nineties action flick was Face/Off. It typified what little was good, and what was really, really, bad about the genre. We’ll try and point out both as we defuse this bomb of explosive excess.
Sean Archer (John Travolta/Nicholas Cage) is an FBI Agent with a vendetta for a homegrown US terrorist named Castor Troy (Nicholas Cage/John Travolta). Archer finally nabs his man, but not before Troy sets up a bomb that could level LA. To find out where the bomb is before it goes boom, Archer undergoes a radical new surgery, adopting the face and voice of his captured nemesis. While Archer goes undercover in Troy’s gang to find the bomb, Troy wakes up and decides a little reciprocity is in order. Now the two identity swapped men are on a collision course with a city as the stakes.
What Went Wrong?
Did you just read the synopsis I wrote? The story is cockamamie. The sci-fi is laughable. Face/Off is just a silly pretext for stuff blowing up. And stuff blows up a lot. While it’s impossible to believe that they had the tech to transplant a face in this 1997 world, it’s quite plausible that they are in a parallel dimension where everything is made of TNT. Wood blows up. Metal blows up. I’m sure people wake up, have their morning coffee, kiss their wife… and blow up in this world. They should have named the film “Spontaneous Combustion”.
- Everything is in service to the man. Kids get fridged and women are just pawns used to motivate two gung ho men to shoot each other up real good. It actively pervs out on two young women twice, and even when the men are with their real families they treat them like afterthoughts to their ambitions. This is a testosterone soaked manly man movie, and it’s pretty cringey.
The actors don’t work in their original roles. John Travolta is completely pathetic as a super serious, by the book law dog and family man. Nicholas Cage is weird when he’s trying to act seriously. Nicholas Cage trying to actively be weird is creepy, leering, and downright perverted. Hollywood’s attempt at making Cage an action star in the nineties was predicated on the fact that his playing it straight was goofy and cheesy enough as is. Neither of them work in their initially assigned identities.
What Went Right?
Once they’ve swapped, the actors are gloriously cheesy. I discussed how Nicholas Cage worked in previous popcorn flicks like Con-Air and The Rock. Once he gets to play the straight man the movie puts the needle back in the groove. And John Travolta excels as a pulpy villain. He’s basically The Joker in this film: an agent of chaos that finds fun in mayhem and delights in antagonism. Face/Off gets it’s swagger back halfway through the movie when both actors get to be themselves. It turns an overly self serious flick into a campy good time.
- All Hail Practical Effects! While most of this film could be mistaken for a Michael Bay wank fest, it actually has a talented action director in Jon Woo helming it. As such, the gunfights are stylish, the explosions are spectacular, and the stunts are varied, interesting, and well choreographed. Since we’re a few years away from CGI taking over the action world (thanks, Wachowskis!), all the action is good old fashioned practical effects and gonzo stunt work. It’s kind of refreshing to see that these days.
How Bad Is It?
The first hour of this film is a giant slog. The only reason I thought about Face/Off 12 years after its release is that IFC is playing it nonstop on the public TV at my place of work. I noticed it the first time after the actors had swapped, and the last hour is nonstop action with one-liners that would make Arnold groan. It got me thinking that this movie was actually better than I remembered it being. Then they played the movie again, and I got to watch the first hour. It’s awful. It’s slow, tedious, and creepy by modern sensibilities.
So, it’s 60 minutes of silly, shiny, slick fun… blocked by 60 minutes of garbage. I can’t recommend a second viewing, but if the last half of the movie is playing while you’re channel surfing, go ahead and pull up a seat. Face/Off thankfully segregates what was good and bad about nineties action movies, so you can have some nostalgia cake without having to eat your vegetables. If you have a fast forward button.