The idea for this movie is really dumb, really really dumb, A FBI agent switches faces with a terrorist to stop a plot only for the terrorist to steal the agent’s face and take over his life. It’s absurd but the direction of John Woo and the dual performances of John Travolta and Nicolas Cage makes this an insanely enjoyable action film.
John Travolta is Sean Archer, FBI Agent with a vendetta against insane terrorist Castor Troy played Nicolas Cage. After Troy murders Archer’s son, the two have a cat and mouse relationship as Archer spends six years trying to capture him. When Troy plants a bomb within Los Angeles and tries to escape, Archer leads an army of agents to capture him in a destructive opening action scene. The result: Castor is in a coma and the location of the bomb unknown, with the FBI unable to get information from any of his associates there’s only one option left.
Archer agrees to highly experimental surgery to become Castor Troy and infiltrate a high security prison holding Troy’s brother who built the bomb to learn the location of it. Only while he’s in the prison, Castor wakes up forces the doctors to turn him into Archer and destroys any evidence of either surgery, and leaves Archer to rot in the prison. It’s so dumb its good, Woo’s direction of this premise is a combination of exaggerated action and authentic drama. This film takes itself seriously when it needs to, the character of Archer goes through trauma and Cage especially sells how hopeless it seems for the character. It’s this dramatic weight that grounds the film, the quieter character moments that both Archer and Troy have throughout the story makes the film so much more than dumb sci-fi.
The dual performances from both leads for Sean Archer is seamless, Travolta builds a strong foundation for who the character is so when Cage takes over its believable. It’s also clever that the protagonist and antagonist are polar opposites in personalities: Sean Archer is a grieving father who has become disconnected to family and friends, obsessed with guilt. Where as Castor Troy is flamboyant, a bombastic psychopath who is so over the top evil only Nicolas Cage could play him and Travolta continues it with his unique flair.
The two nemeses learn about the others life through living it and it shows that the characters are more than their archetypes. Archer seems to be beginning to lose his mind at time as he’s forced to play the part of Castor, he sympathises not with Troy himself but with his associates, the criminals he pursued for years, he considers them allies at times. With Troy, he gleefully embraces the idea of being a FBI Agent, for his own selfish reasons but also finds himself extremely frustrated by the facade, his extreme personality bursting out at inopportune times. With these extreme differences in personality when Travolta and Cage have to make their switches, its instant entertainment.
Woo’s direction of their performances is nothing compared to the execution of the action sequences. They are glorious, this film was made in 90’s back when computers couldn’t do all the work, every action sequence in this film is practical. Plane chases, prison riots, FBI raids, Woo takes all these standard action sequences and injects them with his signature flare: explosions, gunfire everywhere, breaking glass, Flying through the air, two pistols firing, birds!, birds in slow motion! It’s fantastic. It’s never action for the sake of action, every set piece drives the story forward and the extreme nature of violence only heightens the danger for the characters. The action could take you out of the movie if Woo didn’t keep it character focused, every gun shot and explosion is in service to the story.
This film is always going to be entertaining. Travolta and Cage’s performances a fantastic mix of depth and insanity for both characters, Sean Archer and Caster Troy are a great hero/villain pair. Woo’s delivery of the story and thrills elevates Face/Off from other action films, the emotional core always remains and the bizarre concept never detracts from the film. This combination pays off in spades with Woo’s direction and the incredible work from his filmmaking team and the whole cast. It’s so much fun to watch, a quintessential 90’s action movie, see it or re-watch it immediately.