Ready For The Big Ride, Baby: John Woo's 'Face/Off' 20 Years Later

"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.

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I'm Going to Take His Face...Off!

Face/Off opens with a sepia-toned flashback, shot as a dream crashing into a nightmare. FBI agent Sean Archer (Travolta) rides a merry-go-round with his young son Michael. It's a contented moment, smiles bright on the faces of father and son. They are oblivious to the fact that somewhere in the distance, danger lurks. That danger is Castor Troy (Cage), sporting a mustache and sipping from a Big Gulp as he sets up a high-powered sniper rifle. Troy aims, Archer visible in the scope of his rifle, his finger slowly squeezing the trigger. The shot hits Archer, but also travels through him and kills his son in the process.

This entire sequence was intended as a flashback to pop-up midway through the film, but Woo wisely moved it up to the beginning. It's essential, setting up the personal war brewing between these two men. The killing of Michael drives Archer over the edge. Six years after the fact, he's no longer the smiling man we see before the opening credits have ended. Now, he's moody and edgy, his face riddled with stubble. He has devoted his entire career to finally catching Castor Troy. When word comes in on Troy and his gang, including his younger brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola) about to board a private jet at LAX, Archer speeds off with his fellow FBI agents in tow. 

While Cage spends most of the movie riffing on the early glimpse we get of Travolta's performance – dour, slow-spoken, abysmally weary – the opening moments allow him to go wild. Cage's Castor Troy is pure id in a wine colored suit, a drug addled monster prone to spouting sexualized colloquialisms like "suck my tongue" and "I can eat a peach for hours." Cage has evolved into a walking, talking meme these days, but there is a method to his madness, and he even has a name for his own unique style of acting: "Nouveau Shamanic." Face/Off enabled him to test that self-discovered style on a larger budgeted scale than previously before.

"Face/Off for me is a personal milestone because I felt like I was able to realize some of my independent filmmaking dreams in a major studio film," Cage would later say. "John [Woo] had shown me his film Bullet in the Head and I knew when I saw that where he would let me go. I knew his barometer and that I could put it up against a wall of expressionistic acting, as opposed to naturalistic acting. I'd not done that to that level before in a big studio movie, so it was a real personal best for me. I got to get way outside the box."

After a shoot-out and plane crash at LAX, Archer and Troy come face to face, where more of their antagonistic relationship is revealed. Troy even reasons that Archer needs him to survive. "You'd drive your wife and daughter crazy if I was locked up," he tauntingly tells the FBI agent. Archer gets the upper-hand, and Troy ends up in a coma thanks to a carefully placed jet engine. Archer may be able to find some semblance of relief. He returns to his fractured home life, where his rebellious teen daughter Jamie (Dominique Swain) slams doors and his wife Eve (Joan Allen) seems constantly in a fog. "I got him," Archer tells Eve. "I got the man who killed our son." There's a chance for peace now; a chance for Archer to shed his obsession and repair the damage done to his family by the death of Michael. For the Archer family, perhaps it's time to stop picking at an old emotional wound and let it begin to scab over.

The peace is short-lived. Before falling into his coma, Troy planted a massive bomb somewhere in downtown Los Angeles, set on a timer to go of very, very soon. His brother Pollux is in custody, but he won't talk. Archer tries to sweat the info out of Troy's associates, including Troy's old flame Sasha (Gina Gershon), but gets nowhere. There's only one logical way to stop the bomb: Archer will wear Troy's face like a mask and pretend to be him.

A Special Ops specialist Dr. Hollis Miller (CCH Pounder) and a surgeon, Dr. Malcolm Walsh (Colm Feore), recruit Archer for the face-swap job because Archer has "lived and breathed" Castor Troy for the last six years – his revenge-driven obsession has made him an expert on all-things Castor Troy. The plan: Archer, as Castor Troy, will go into the top-secret prison where Pollux Troy is incarcerated, learn the location of the bomb, and waltz out a free man. Just to make things extra complicated, though, Archer can't tell his friends or family about the mission.

The surgery goes off without a hitch – Archer's face is removed and left floating in a jar of water, which must be what one does with recently removed faces. Troy's face is plastered over Archer's skull, Archer's body is altered to match Troy's, and he awakens a whole new man. It's a shock, and Cage, now as Travolta, plays it expertly, having a complete hysterical breakdown once he sees the face of his enemy starring back at him in a mirror.

Things only get worse for Archer from here. He infiltrates the prison, a location which is one of the only sci-fi holdovers from the first draft, located in the middle of the ocean and featuring inmates who wear giant, clunky magnetic boots. But during his imprisonment, Troy wakes up, faceless but not without a sense of humor. He forces the Dr. Walsh to perform the same procedure again, only this time he turns Troy into Archer. And then Troy kills the only people who were aware of the top-secret surgery, in effect dooming Archer to be stuck as Troy forever.

Travolta truly comes to life once he's given the chance to impersonate Cage. He's nails Cage's style of speaking, and masters that Nouveau Shamanic acting style in the process. Once Archer learns of the switch, he stages a daring escape from the prison and sets about reclaiming his life. He has to convince Eve, who has been living as Troy-as-Archer's wife for weeks at this point, of his true identity, which he does be recounting their first date. It's a small, quiet moment in a film that normally wouldn't have small, quiet moments. Character moments like this are what elevate Face/Off from being just a high-concept action flick. There's a humanity here that other films of this ilk wouldn't bother with. Woo takes the time to humanize all of the characters, even the villains, such as during a sequence where Archer, recently escaped from prison, holds up with Troy's old gang and bonds with them. He also bonds with Troy's girlfriend Sasha, and discovers that Troy and Sasha have a young son together, Adam.

The introduction of Troy's son leads to Face/Off's most brilliant sequence: a chaotic shoot-out set to The Wizard of Oz's "Over the Rainbow." As SWAT teams descend on a hideout, guns blaze and plaster and glass explodes, Sasha and Troy's son Adam stands in the middle of it, lit by a spotlight. Woo is staging this madness through the eyes of the child, giving him an excuse to go even more over-the-top than usual. The damage seems heightened and more dramatic because we're experiencing it through Adam's young, innocent eyes. It was a brilliant last-minute idea from Woo – a way to make the scene more than just another violent shoot-out. It culminates in a moment where Troy and Archer stand back-to-back in front of a two-sided mirror, turning to fire at each other and in effect blasting away at their own reflections, shattering the people they used to be as the glass explodes.

Woo's violence is like ballet. Characters pirouette and pivot as they fire their weapons. When staging shootouts, Woo often has a character brandish two guns in their hands. It's not just a stylistic flourish, there's a reasoning behind it: rhythm. "While we were shooting A Better Tomorrow," the director explained, "I decided to stage a very classic gun battle scene and I wanted it to be unique, unlike any in a Hong Kong film ever. I'm very strongly affected by the music in films. I wanted the gunshots to have a very strong rhythm, like a drum beat...two guns continuously firing is just like a very strong drum beat."

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Face/Off concludes with a standoff, with Archer as Troy, Troy as Archer, and several of Troy's goons all aiming weapons at each other while Eve stands in the dead-center, in danger of taking the brunt of all those bullets. It's a scenario Woo excels at staging. "The stand-off is my trademark," Woo said. "In my theory, I always feel no one is perfect in this world. There is no real good guy or bad guy in this world. You can see yourself in the bad people. The bad people can see themselves in the good people. So that's why I created the movement of the stand-off scene. No matter if it's a good guy or bad guy, they're all equal."

After a speedboat chase that ends in a boat not just crashing but flying through the air in a fireball, Troy is killed and Archer is restored to his old self, after Eve convinces the rest of the FBI of the face-changing surgery. After healing from the surgery (for some inexplicable reason, Archer has the doctors reinstall the love handles they removed from his hips to turn him into Troy, Archer returns home with a surprise: he's adopted Adam, Troy and Sasha's son. This was a reshoot: Woo originally wanted a much darker ending, where Archer returns home, only to glance in a mirror and see Troy's face staring back at him. Test audiences didn't go for it, so the epilogue where Archer brings home Adam was added. Yet even though this scene is played as a tender moment, there's an insidious underbelly to it all. Archer is in a sense replacing his dead son with the son of his mortal enemy. He may have given up Troy's visage, but he's still in a sense clinging to a piece of him. Even now, after all the bloodshed, Archer is unable to completely let Castor Troy go.

Beyond Face/Off

Face/Off should not work. It's an inherently goofy idea filled with implausibilities. The fact that it does work, and works so incredibly well, is a testament to Woo's ability as a filmmaker. Some filmmakers truly discover their film in the editing bay, but Woo has it all laid out in his mind. Often during Face/Off, he would drive his actors crazy by shooting only one take of a scene. So confident was he in his cinematic abilities that Woo failed to see the need for multiple takes or coverage. The big action beats are works of art, blossoming with Woo's flourishes. It's a stark contrast to today's action filmmaking, which is hindered by pre-visualization software that renders action scenes boring and flat. There's nothing boring and flat about Face/Off, a rare example of a Hollywood action movie free of restraints.

Face/Off seemed to signal that Woo had finally arrived in Hollywood. The film earned positive reviews and cleaned-up at the box office. The sky was the limit for John Woo, and he was ecstatic to be working in America. "Here in America I feel I have many more opportunities, especially now that I have all this wonderful support and so many projects," he said. "In America you can say anything that you want, create anything you want. In Hong Kong, unfortunately, you have to be careful of everything you do and say. And this I don't like."

Yet Woo would never be able to catch the lunatic magic of Face/Off in Hollywood. He made three more American films – the messy Mission: Impossible 2, the almost incoherent Paycheck, and Windtalkers, a stab at prestige filmmaking that unfortunately failed to hit the mark. It didn't help matters that the film apparently lost $60m at the box office. The filmmaker left the U.S., and made the epic Chinese war film Red Cliff. Red Cliff broke box office records in China, but when it was eventually released in America, in a truncated version that trimmed 140 minutes of runtime, it failed to make a blip.

It's bittersweet now to look back on Face/Off and realize it was the only truly great film in Woo's American stopover. Paramount Pictures essentially gave Woo free reign to make Face/Off, enabling him to add as many of his flourishes as he wanted as long as he didn't go over schedule. Perhaps what affected the rest of Woo's American films was studio executives not letting Woo be himself; a desire to have Woo slip on another filmmaker's face and shun his own filmmaking identity. Whatever the case may be, we'll always have Face/Off, a demented, action-packed, emotional extravaganza that knows exactly what it is.