Why John Travolta Thinks He Had An Easier Time On Face/Off Than Nicolas Cage

Hollywood blockbusters don't get more gleefully unhinged than John Woo's "Face/Off." Produced during the decline of a maximalist action-filmmaking phase that began at the dawn of the Reagan era, Woo wisely cast two of the most fearlessly over-the-top actors on the planet to hard-sell the film's absurd premise. The result was a gonzo classic that left many of the genre's practitioners scrambling to conceive of something, anything, wilder than the notion of a cop (John Travolta) infiltrating the crime syndicate run by the madman (Nicolas Cage) who killed his son by having the criminal's face grafted onto his — oh, and when the bad guy unexpectedly rouses from his coma, he undergoes the same procedure to pose as the cop.

This is madness, which means you either make this movie with Travolta and Cage, or you don't make it at all.

Both actors were at the height of their powers in 1997. Two years prior, Cage had earned a Best Actor Oscar for his shattering performance as a suicidal alcoholic in Mike Figgis's "Leaving Las Vegas," while Travolta had reinvigorated his career as a hitman with tragically nervous bowels in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." They would eventually veer off into garish self-parody, but before they did they got to essentially parody each other in Woo's film. It's a blast to watch, but, according to Travolta, he had a much easier go of it than Cage.

You be me for a while, and I'll be you

In an interview with Build, Travolta acknowledges that he had no idea if his appropriation of Cage's demeanor was going to play in an emotionally believable way: 

"I often wondered if it was working. It was Joan Allen and Nic that assured me that it was. I knew it was a very bold thing to try to pull off: us being each other. We don't look exactly alike, and we don't behave at all like each other." 

Fortunately for Travolta, Cage has an unmistakable way of being. You know this if you've watched "Face/Off" several hundred times like a rational cinephile, but you should still click through to the above-linked video to watch Travolta effortlessly nail Cage's affectations a good 20 years after completing the film. It's uncanny.

Cage had the far trickier assignment of being Travolta. "Most of the other things I ever played were very far from who I am as a person," says Travolta. Eager to help his co-star, Travolta offered up a bit of advice. "I said, 'If you really want to find me, maybe look at movies like 'Phenomenon' or 'Michael' or 'Look Who's Talking,' where it's a little more like my personality.'" Cage clearly took this to heart. How else to explain why Travolta's blowing him off the screen for most of the film. It's not that Cage is giving a poor performance. Far from it. He keeps us fully invested in the righteousness of Travolta's character, so that, when they finally switch back, we're legitimately moved by this deeply tortured man going home to his wife and family — with a replacement son to boot! But Travolta is obviously having more fun.

The Re-Caging of Travolta

"Face/Off" is a slightly melancholy watch nowadays because, aside from his spot-on portrayal of, essentially, Bill Clinton in "Primary Colors," Travolta has spent the majority of the 21st century selecting projects that are unworthy of his immense talent. Cage, on the other hand, has just worked consistently, likely due in some part to his financial woes. But while he's made a good deal of what we used to call direct-to-video dreck, he can still completely disappear into a part when the material is worthy of him (as he did most recently in "Mandy" and "Pig"). Maybe Travolta needs to tap back into that Cage juju, sans facial replacement surgery, and see if he can't get inspired to give his first truly great performance in well over a decade.