Did John Woo suffer severe head trauma sometime in the mid-nineties? I really wanna know. Last week in my review of Hard Target I struggled to place the action director’s American debut within his earlier oeuvre. After watching Broken Arrow and now Face/Off, I’m convinced Hard Target is a masterpiece on par with Woo’s Hong Kong pictures. What went wrong?
Well...fuck it, I’ll just bullet point some shit:
- Just the whole plot: Nicholas Cage = bad guy; John Travolta = good guy; faces get switched; shenanigans ensue. So why do they switch faces? Nicholas Cage and his brother previously planted a bomb somewhere in the city. Brother gets arrested; Cage becomes comatose after a shootout with G-Man Travolta. The Feds need to find out from Cage’s brother where the bomb is planted. Logically, they decide to put Cage’s face on Travolta’s head and then plant him in the prison with Cage’s brother so that Cage-faced Travolta can glean information from said brother. Because it makes so much sense.
- So why does Cage then get Travolta’s face, you ask. After the face-transplant, the Feds decide, "Why do we need to continue surveillance on comatose Cage? What with all that money we spent perfecting and implementing face-transplanting technology, we can’t afford to keep a security camera in Cage’s hospital room. I’m sure he’ll never wake up, use one of the phones we left in his room...what? Why wouldn't we leave a phone in his room? It just makes sense. Besides, it’s not like he’ll wake up, use that phone to call one of his accomplices, who will then kidnap a face-transplanting doctor and force him to put Travolta’s face on his body. But yeah, security cameras are expensive."
- Back to Cage-faced Travolta. The Feds decide not to tell any of the authorities in the prison that Cage is actually just Cage-faced Travolta and not in fact Cage. Because, you know, it’s not like prison guards, when given the opportunity to watch over a known terrorist responsible for untold deaths, are going to beat the man to pulp, leaving him in traction or possibly a coma—thereby preventing Cage-faced Travolta from talking to Cage’s brother.
- And back to the face-transplanting. Cage and Travolta do not have anything remotely resembling similar body types. I can buy the face-transplanting; I will never believe it’s possible—in one night, no less—to transform Travolta’s body into Cage's, or vice-versa.
- Cage-faced Travolta, after a prison escape and other shenanigans, makes it home to his wife, whom he must convince that he is actually Travolta—which he does by showing affection the way only Travolta does: by mimicking the hand gesture of a doctor closing the eyes of a recently deceased cardiac case.
- And now the most ludicrous plot element. At the very end, after Cage-faced Travolta has killed Travolta-faced Cage, the doctors give Travolta his old face back. But why then did Travolta also opt to get his paunchy body back? Or was this just a cruel prank by the physicians?
And now, a few words on what went right. First of all, the performances: this movie is, after all, if nothing else, a showcase for some great Nicholas Cage and John Travolta showboating. Now I’m generally not a fan of Travolta’s acting but the man turns in a serviceable imitation of Nicholas Cage here. The pre-face transplant Travolta scenes are something of a chore, but when he is allowed to go Cage, the results are adequate.
It is Cage, however, who really shines. As you'll know if you've listened to more than a few episodes of my podcast or if you regularly follow my blog, I love batshit Cage—which Face/Off features to the nth degree. In the pre-face transplant scenes, the man goes full Cage, relishing every crazy minute he is allowed to give in to his crazy side. And in the post-face transplant scenes he believably plays a buttoned-down man pretending to be crazy.
And also, I’ll be honest, I’d be lying if I said Face/Off wasn’t at least entertaining. I was skeptical at first when I saw that the running time pushed the 2 1/2 hour mark, but the movie was a generally enjoyable ride the whole way through (not that this changes my opinion that face-transplanting action movies should never be longer than ninety minutes). But still, I didn't see a lot of Woo here. Aside from a few stylistic flourishes—slo-mo, sideways-falling double-gun shootouts, and doves (what is it with the doves, anyway?)—Face/Off very well could have been, dare I say it, a Jerry Bruckheimer movie.
And I don’t even necessarily dislike nineties Bruckheimer films. The Rock and Con Air are tons of fun. But I don’t enjoy these movies the same way I enjoy Hard Target—and certainly not the same way I enjoy Hard Boiled or The Killer. Meaning, Face/Off is an interchangeable piece of nineties action trash. It was an enjoyable way to pass the time but it didn't leave me with anything but an ass-dent in my chair.