faceoff cage

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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