Film discussion

Throwback 20: Face/Off

Question: Nicolas Cage, good actor or bad actor? The answer: Yes.

Face/Off is the third American made John Woo film, behind Hard Target and Broken Arrow, and sees John Travolta playing FBI Agent Sean Archer, a man obsessed with capturing the criminal Castor Troy, played by Nicholas Cage.

With a fairly standard beginning to the film, an FBI Agent gone mad with stopping the man responsible for his son’s death, the film takes a sharp turn into the extraordinary after Castor Troy is captured but ends up in a coma. With a bomb set to detonate somewhere within L.A. and the only other person who knows its location being Castor’s brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola) Archer takes desperate measures to get the information, having his face surgically removed and replaced with Castor Troy’s.

With the film suddenly shifting its hero and villain actors Face/Off gives one of the most unique action film experiences around. The characters stay the same, but the actors switch roles for the majority of the film. With the roles first being intended for Harrison Ford and Michael Douglas when the script was first penned, then Arnold Schwartzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, it’s surprising that the roles eventually went to Cage and Travolta. Despite this, the two actors play their dual parts so well that it’s hard to see another pairing doing the film in the same way (although I would love to see the Arnie/Stallone version).

Face/Off gives both of its actors room to embrace their crazy side when playing the villainous Castor Troy, and whilst no one else quite does crazy as well as Nicholas Cage, Travolta managed to demonstrate just how good he can be when playing the creepy bad guy; something that he would go on to do again after Face/Off in roles in SwordfishThe Punisher, and his 2015 Oscars moment with Idina Menzel.

Looking into the making of the film I discovered that both John Travolta and Nicholas Cage spent two weeks together before filming began, working with each other to to figure out how their characters would talk, the way they would mover, and the little expressions they would make. Perhaps this is something that helps to sell the switch between the two of them, that they’re not just trying to play each other, but are playing characters that they both had a hand in creating. Whilst this comes across in how they both play Archer, there are some subtle differences in their depictions of Castor Troy, though this could be because they’re both trying to out crazy the other.

Whilst the acting is great throughout, including some brilliant performances from its supporting cast, it’s the directing from Hong Kong legend John Woo that really makes the film something special. With a directing style that many have tried to replicate over the years, Woo has a way of bringing beauty and spectacle not just to action scenes, but even the most ordinary and banal moments.

Throughout the film we are treated to some of the best staples of John Woo directing, including an aeroplane chase that crashes into a hanger, a boat chase that crashes into a pier, and a shootout set to ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’. Executed with more flair than his previous Hollywood films, it’s clear that he’s been given more room to direct in his usual style.

A great example of what a director can accomplish with the help of some very talented actors when they’re left alone by the studio, Face/Off still remains one of the best action films ever made. With a great performance from Nicolas Cage, and a great turn at a villain from John Travolta, this unlikely duo work ridiculously well together on screen.

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