Face/Off wasn’t John Woo’s first Hollywood movie, or his second. But it was his first John Woo movie in Hollywood, if you follow. Having revolutionized the genre with his gun fu movies in Hong Kong, the action master found America a frustrating place to work. Studios kept intervening in his projects. 1997's Face/Off was his first American movie where he was given major creative control, and it shows.
Face/Off features John Travolta playing Nicolas Cage and Nicolas Cage playing John Travolta. There are magnet prisons, golden guns, ridiculous facial expressions, bizarre asides, and the promise that nearly every scene will top the one before it.
Travolta starts off the movie playing Sean Archer, a by-the-book FBI Agent dead-set on arresting Castor Troy, a mercenary-for-hire who killed his son. The plot begins in earnest with a police chase down an airport runway as Archer and the rest of the FBI try to catch Troy’s plane before it takes off. In some movies, having the characters shoot at each other from moving planes and trying to pin a plane down with a helicopter would be a finale. Face/Off is just getting started.
Archer captures Troy and his gang, with Troy falling into a coma. Unfortunately, not before Troy rigged a bomb that’s set to go off in Los Angeles. Archer needs to find it.
What’s the most obvious way to do this, you ask? Simply undergo experimental surgery to remove Troy’s face and place it on Archer’s body, as well as a further set of surgeries that will completely change Archer’s body to look exactly like Troy. It’s all about taking someone’s face off, you see.
We’re shown some of the flimsiest movie science in history (Deep Blue Sea is much more accurate) and then it’s off to magnet jail to find the bomb’s location from Troy’s brother, Pollux. Pollux is residing in a prison whose entire gimmick is making its prisoners wear magnet boots so they can be constantly locked down and tracked. As far as prison gimmicks go, it’s fantastic. John Carroll Lynch, most recently seen as a pacifist in The Trial of the Chicago 7, also has a fun role as a vicious prison guard.
Archer’s absurd plan is actually working... until a faceless Troy wakes up from his coma. His henchmen kidnap the doctor behind the face switching surgery and force him to perform it on Troy using Archer’s face. This scene makes even less sense than Archer’s surgery, which is shown to the audience as a complex, multi-faceted procedure that incorporates everything from weight loss surgery to hair cuts.
How Troy is able to pull off these changes is never explained, but it’s fine. Face/Off is not hard sci-fi, to put it lightly. Far more important than the science behind any of these ridiculous surgeries is a faceless Caster Troy, seen in the reflection of the kidnapped doctor’s glasses. The doctor asks Troy what he wants. Troy replies, “Take one goddamn guess!”
The movie is filled with Travolta and Cage taking the chance to laugh at themselves. Travolta, playing Cage’s Troy, gets off a line making fun of his chin. Cage, acting as Travolta’s character pretending to be Cage, gets bug-eyed and wild at the drop of a hat.
Face/Off is the platonic ideal of a 1990s action movie. Not everything makes sense, but you’re having too much fun to care.
Face/Off is streaming on Hulu through February 28 in the U.S.