In light of many recent ridiculous big actioners attempting to pass themselves off as gritty and realistic (the Taken sequels come immediately to mind), 1997’s Face/Off is like a breath of fresh air. Director John Woo is a match made in heaven for the script, bringing along two of the only actors who could push its level of absurdity to even higher heights. An impressionistic opening shows terrorist-for-hire Castor Troy shooting FBI Agent Sean Archer while he and his son are at a carnival. The bullet passes through Archer, a flesh wound, and then kills his son, explaining the six year personal vendetta he harbors.
Archer is, at first, played by John Travolta. After a ludicrous, bloated, yet genuinely exhilarating set piece on an airstrip, Troy (initially Nicholas Cage) ends up in a coma. As the title suggests, the two inevitably “switch faces” thanks to a medical procedure of questionable scientific backing, giving both Travolta and Cage the delicious opportunity to deliver impressions of the opposite actor. Travolta dials his performance up a few campy notches, a requirement when going toe-to-toe with the bug-eyed Cage, who relishes delivering lines like, “Y’know, I could eat a peach for hours,” as overblown as he can possibly muster.
Behind all of the inanity is John Woo, who acts as more of a choreographer than a director. He does no favors to the bloated script, but his presence is strongly felt in each of Face/Off‘s plethora of shoot out sequences. Woo, like Michael Mann, is a master of the gun battle. Unlike Mann, however, Woo revels in sheer theatrical stylization. His characters dive off of crates, firing two pistols in slow motion as sparks fly from background explosions. Woo, Travolta, and Cage all dive head first into Face/Off‘s outlandishness, which is the only way it could have possibly worked. There seems to be an understanding that all that matters is the action, the explosion, the image, the kooky facial expression, the one-liner. Face/Off is pure entertainment.