Friday, September 17, 2021

Face/Off (1997)

If you were confused by my Evangelion critique, this film may offer low-brow thrills closer to your tastes. John Woo is the kind of filmmaker who makes art for the ignorant masses yet somehow manages to get near-universal acclaim. Hong Kong’s Tarantino.

In this film, John Woo pays homage to himself. It’s one of those movies that filmmakers say is “like a movie”, whatever that means. All movies are movies, but this one is stylish and self-gratifying enough to suggest its director knows he’s awesome. Then add Nicolas Cage and John Travolta, and your over-the-top schlock is guaranteed.


I’m going to take his FACE…OFF!

I’m the type of person who will spend hours digging into a filmmaker’s personal life to find out what makes him tick. I don’t take entertainment lightly. Yet with this film I automatically turn my brain off, and that is a compliment to how immersive it is to watch that special magic of insane former A-list actors playing insane John Woo characters in a ridiculous cyberpunk plot that could actually almost happen. You can file it away in the back of your brain, then years later remember Face/Off as that fun movie that captured three men at the top of their careers.

At its core, Face/Off is a renegade cop movie, which is a classic premise in more classic works than I can list. Serpico, Blade Runner, Kojima’s Snatcher video game that pioneered the visual novel genre, the list goes on and on. A common attribute of this type of story is a sci-fi twist. Face/Off’s is a take on plastic surgery: swapping two people’s faces. The celebrated cop’s face is swapped with that of the notorious villain, and due to an unexpected turn of events, both men simultaneously infiltrate each other’s lives.

In other words, Travolta plays Cage and Cage plays Travolta.

It’s dumb but it works extremely well. Stylishly executed cinematography and setups that clearly took hours (doves, anyone?) punctuate almost every shot of the movie. The thing drowns in style. Live hard, die free, something like that. It’s an action movie collage that pays tribute to the genre from an enlightened perspective while allowing the audience to watch it from an unenlightened perspective, and unlike prior “action comedy” bullshit like Last Action Hero, Face/Off lives up to the thing it satirizes. It’s John Woo on John Woo.

Everybody loved this movie, so it’s no surprise Hollywood wanted to cash in with a sequel, nor is it a surprise that the sequel is coming decades after the original, nor is it a surprise that the sequel’s director did not direct any film I have ever seen. Meanwhile, John Woo pivoted to making propaganda for mainland China following the financial losses of The Crossing (2014). It’s not the happiest ending to a story about Nick Cage and John Travolta making goofy faces, but the nineties optimism couldn’t last forever. Cage is still a national treasure as he gets more and more surreal.