Face/Off At 20: All Hail the Most Gleefully Batsh*t Action Movie Ever


In certain relationships, it can take months—nay, years—for one side to reveal his/her crazy. It takes Face/Off a shade over two minutes.

The hazy, washed-out palette, porn ‘stache on Nicolas Cage’s face, and smile on John Travolta’s inform us that we are in flashback. We appear to be in Griffith Park, which strikes us as odd given that Cage has assembled a sniper rifle on a grassy knoll in full view of parents, children, and semi-employed models walking their chorkies. Cage is staring down the barrel of the aforementioned high-caliber weapon at Travolta, who is giving his adorable young boy face-waterfalls on a carousel. In between straw-sips of some mysterious beverage (probably an Orangina, because Nic Cage), the mustachioed baddie fires off a shot that manages to pass through Travolta’s back and into the head of his son, flinging father and child off the not-so-merry-go-round. Cage is shocked—so shocked that he lets Travolta live—while Travolta is in a state of total agony, staring up at the sky and cursing Xenu.

Two minutes later—that is, at the film’s four-minute mark—we’ve jumped six years ahead to the present-day. Cage, now clean-shaven and dressed as a priest, is stashing a dirty bomb at a convention center in Downtown L.A. After completing his task, he approaches a teenage church choir, dancing like a maniac. His eyes meet those of a fetching, probably-underage blonde girl who, against all rhyme or reason, appears to be into whatever Father Cage is selling. He sidles up to the girl, moans, licks her ear, and gropes her butt, before unleashing the craziest damn O-face you’ve ever seen.

But wait, there’s more. In the very next scene, we are informed that Cage is boarding a private jet about to take off at LAX, and before you can say despite all my rage I am still just a Nicolas Cage, Travolta’s FBI agent is on said airstrip in a Humvee playing chicken with the plane. But let’s back up about a minute or so, because prior to the truck-plane standoff, Cage, decked out in a red silk shirt with twin gold pistols, is being serviced by a stewardess onboard the jet. The stewardess, who is dressed like a librarian (turtleneck sweater, beige suit), apparently cannot resist La Cage’s killer pickup line: “If I were to let you suck my tongue, would you be grateful?”

Or can she! We soon learn that the stewardess is actually an undercover FBI agent, making her the most conservatively-dressed honeytrap in the history of honeytraps.

Air Cage is downed by Travolta, and an operatic airplane hangar shootout ensues, replete with slow-mo, twin-gun dives and Mexican standoffs galore. Some random FBI guy’s ear is shot off, and Nic Cage and his Igor-like brother are captured by Travolta and his G-Men. BOOM. The movie’s over, and we’re only 12 minutes and change in.

Just kidding. You see, Castor Troy (Cage) and his gimpy brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola), still have that big ol’ bomb hidden somewhere in Los Angeles, and FBI Superagent Sean Archer (Travolta) and his crew—including Margaret Cho (!)—need to track it down. So, they hatch a plan: using an experimental new procedure, they’ll remove Castor’s face, who is in a coma, and place it on Archer—while also adjusting his body, hairline, voice, you name it—thereby transforming Archer into Castor. Then Archer (as Castor) will probe Pollux, who is being housed in a futuristic sea-prison, and discover the location of the bomb.

Unfortunately for Archer (and the inimitable CCH Pounder, RIP), Castor wakes up from his coma, and strong-arms the surgeon into performing the same surgery on him, thereby transforming him into Archer. And there you have it: Archer (as Castor) must negotiate the criminal underworld of the man who murdered his son on a goddamn carousel, and Castor must do the same, playing house with Archer’s wife, Dr. Eve Archer (Joan Allen), and his emo daughter Jamie, played by Dominique Swain, all while posing as a man of the law. But really, what transpires is a tremendously entertaining game of one-upmanship between Cage and Travolta, two wildly flamboyant performers—and all-around weirdos—who’ve never found a character ceiling they weren’t game to shatter.

“I love Face/Off,” Travolta once told me. “And it’s true. Nic is very playful, and I’m very playful, so all I have to do is get someone who wants to play, and all he has to do is get someone who wants to play, and he finally found his match. We’d go, ‘Oh, if you do that then I’m going to do this,’ and kept raising the stakes. It was a great time.”

Did I mention this is a John Woo film? That means extravagant action set piece after extravagant action set piece (on planes, in a dove-filled church, riding boats), a heartstring-tugging orchestral score fit for a sweeping romance, hilariously on-the-nose imagery (mirrors galore!), and behavior that flouts convention. This isn’t a philosophical treatise on Descartes’ duality of man; this is an everything and the kitchen sink action flick that will rock your world.

There are so many scenes—and characters—that defy traditional movie logic in Face/Off. The science behind it (or lack thereof) is absolutely bonkers; Castor Troy’s official job title in the film is “terrorist-for-hire” (so, a freelancer?); there is a remote sea prison named Erewohn (an anagram for “nowhere”) where everyone wears magnetic boots, which were borrowed from the Super Mario Bros. movie (really); Gina Gershon and Nick Cassavetes play a brother-and-sister pair who like to kiss each other on the mouth; Nic Cage screams “DIE!” every time he lands someone in a death grip; and Joan Allen is the movie’s choice babe, who repeatedly finds herself on the end of Castor-as-Archer’s ogling. The only thing that truly makes sense in this movie is Danny Masterson as the rapey boyfriend with a red Corvette.

But the truth is, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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