I love the sheer intensity of a (good) action movie. Physical alterations and violence are capable of carrying viewers past plot absurdities before they have chance to think “Could that really happen?” This doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not supposed to take them seriously, however, as most critics like to point out; I’m very serious about the levels of insanity that attempt to captivate my attention from the very beginning of a movie within this genre.
Face/Off is as brilliant an action spectacle as them come. Legendary Hong Kong director John Woo (Hard Boiled, The Killer) never once hesitates on playing it safe here, and is masterful in blurring the distinctions between antagonist and protagonist, making the film a rip-roaring emotional rollercoaster for the entirety of its two-hour-twenty-minutes running time. Indeed, more things get blown up in the first fifteen minutes here than in four or five of these modern day action flicks put together.
John Travolta begins as Sean Archer, an FBI agent who has been obsessed with tracking down Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) ever since the day he was responsible for killing his five-year-old son. After an intense shootout at the airport, Troy is left in a coma, and Archer discovers from the plans in Troy’s briefcase that he is going to blow up half of Los Angeles in a few days time. After a radical surgery process, Archer possesses the face of his enemy and goes undercover in a maximum security prison to question Troy’s brother (Alessandro Nivola) about the exact whereabouts of the bomb. He is now Castor Troy.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the REAL Castor Troy will eventually wake from his coma and be seemingly pissed off with the fact that his face is now missing. Mike Werb and Michael Colleary’s screenwriting, however, allows Travolta and Cage to bathe in the glory of possessing two character identities; the Sci-Fi elements make for some great verbal exchanges (“Well, I’ve gotta go. I’ve got a government job to abuse, and a lonely wife to fuck,”) that elevate the characters above the usual cardboard cut-out action hero stereotype, making them both seem very likable in the eyes of the viewer.
It must be said, also, that Travolta and Cage are very convincing at impersonating their opposites — I respected them both for their performances here. There is also some good support from Joan Allen as Dr. Eve Archer and Gina Gershon as Sasha Hassler; both women inject an element of femininity into the film, anchoring their men and making the insane plotline actually seem credible.
Action wise, there are countless shootouts and fist fights, which definitely assist in outlining the intense rivalry between Archer and Troy. These are all very wild and very violent, but there’s a certain poetical feel about them all, also, which comes as standard with most of John Woo’s work in the eighties and nineties. His camerawork is masterful at capturing the emotion that comes with every bullet or fist making contact with the skin, and as a result the whole film is full of intensity and just never lets up. There’s even a spectacular boat chase towards the end of the film, which is one of the greatest action scenes that you’re ever likely to see.
If I want realism then a majority of the time if said in my other reviews that I’ll prefer to read a book. Face/Off is definitely no exception: It’s a ludicrous piece of action cinema, stunningly choreographed, full of adrenaline and with some great performances from its actors at the core. It’s incredibly entertaining all round, and as far as action movies go, it definitely ranks up there as one of the greatest ever made. No bullshit.