Face Off

“I am tired of myself tonight. I should like to be somebody else.” — Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

We are hardwired to see faces. Through the phenomenon of pareidolia, we’re able to glimpse a collection of shapes in a rock, or a cloud, or an oil spill, and imagine we can spot a face within. Our brains are always searching for something to identify; something to relate to. We judge emotions through the facial features of others – we see entire worlds of possibilities in the raising of an eyebrow, or the downturning of a mouth.

Our own faces remain out of sight, save for when we catch them reflected in a mirror, or in a selfie, or ghost-like and shadowy in the screens of cellphones and laptops. Yet even when we’re not looking at our own faces, we tend to have an image in our minds of how we look. It may be idealized or depreciated, but it’s there. Our faces reflect who we are – without them, we might lose our identity. What might happen then if we gazed into a mirror and discovered a completely different person staring back at us. Worse than that – what if it was the reflection of someone we despised. Someone who had caused us irreparable harm. The face of a mortal enemy.

That’s the premise of Face/Off, John Woo’s glorious and deranged action film from 1997. It was not the first Hollywood movie Woo would direct, but it would ultimately be the best, the only film during the filmmakers’ sojourn in America that truly captured his unmatched style.

The Chinese-born Woo began working in the Hong Kong film industry in the 1960s, starting as a script supervisor and working his way up to director. But he wasn’t making the type of films that spoke to him. Then came the 1980s. “[A]t that time, Hong Kong had sort of a ‘new wave’ going on in terms of its filmmakers, so it was exciting,” said Woo. “I was going through a transition myself then. Before that, I used to be a comedy director, and I just hated it! I wanted to change, because the kinds of movies I really wanted to do were dramas… But the studio wouldn’t let me do it. So I changed over to another studio called Cinema City to make A Better Tomorrow in 1986…And that movie really changed my life. It broke all the records, made a lot of money and helped me establish myself as a director all over the world.”

A Better Tomorrow introduced a new audience to Woo’s prototypical screen story, populated with antiheroes and operatic violence inspired in part by classic Hollywood musicals. Woo would make six more movies in Hong Kong, including The Killer, Bullet in the Head and Hard Boiled. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling. Woo’s first two American films – Hard Target, with Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Broken Arrow, with John Travolta and Christian Slater – weren’t quite up to snuff. There were enjoyable elements in both of those films, but for Woo’s Hollywood venture, the third time was the charm.

Face Off John Woo

Mr. Woo Goes to Hollywood

In 1990, writers Mike Werb and Michael Colleary penned a high-concept spec script called Face/Off – a film loaded with sci-fi trappings (including flying cars), imagined as a possible starring vehicle for two of the biggest action stars of the time, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Woo was interested, but the science fiction elements kept him from committing. “The first draft was frustrating,” the filmmaker said. “I told the studio I love the concept, but I want more character, more humanity. If there is too much science fiction, we lose the drama.” Woo also felt he just wasn’t ready to handle a full-blown sci-fi film yet.

The plot involved two mortal enemies – a sadistic terrorist and the lawman who has been obsessively trying to bring him down – suddenly thrust into an almost unthinkable situation. Through a medical procedure, the two men switch faces, and then lives. The science fiction element was thought essential by writers Werb and Colleary as an explanation for the face-swap surgery (the first real-life face transplantation wouldn’t happen until 2005). As the film’s development evolved at Paramount Pictures, an ingenious idea formed: cut the science fiction and just accept the transplantation scenario at face value. As an added bonus, removing the overtly sci-fi aspects would slash the budget.

After Woo had bailed on the project, future The Fast and The Furious director Rob Cohen was keen to helm the film. But delays led to Cohen bailing to go make Dragonheart, which was the perfect excuse to bring back Woo. The science fiction heavily expunged from the text, Woo signed on. Stallone and Schwarzenegger never became attached, but Johnny Depp and Nicolas Cage were two names considered as the co-leads, then Alec Baldwin and Bruce Willis were suggested. Finally, Cage and John Travolta signed on.

In the end, this would be pitch-perfect casting. Travolta was still on a career-high, recently recovering from a long slump thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in 1994. One of Travolta’s post-Pulp comeback roles had been playing the heavy in Woo’s second American feature, Broken Arrow. Cage had spent most of his early career in smaller parts, or smaller films. Then in 1995 came Leaving Las Vegas, which won Cage a Best Actor Academy Award. Leaving Las Vegas was followed by Michael Bay’s The Rock, which inexplicably established the quirky Cage as an action star.

The two actors set about studying each other’s vocal inflections and mannerisms, learning how to effectively mimic one another. The results are impressive – Travolta in particular does an eerily accurate impression of Cage’s more manic acting choices. More important than that: the performances are so on-point that they become believable almost instantly. We never for a second doubt the admittedly ludicrous set-up of the story, that these two men have swapped faces. It works because Cage and Travolta sell it so well, and because Woo never for a second lets the film wink at the audience. Face/Off is playful, funny even – but never in a self-deprecating, ironic way. It is completely devoted to its premise.

Continue Reading Face/Off 20th Anniversary >>

Pages: 1 2 3Next page

Cool Posts From Around the Web: