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Face/Off (1997): The Most Absurd Thriller Ever

Updated: Apr 24, 2022

Ah, Nicolas Cage. Where can he go wrong? Back in the 1990s, Cage was unstoppable and seen as a serious actor with films like Leaving Las Vegas under his belt which won him an Academy Award for Best Actor. Two years later, he would go on to star in this John Woo action flick alongside multi-Razzi Award nominee John Travolta, which would funnily enough, quickly become one of his most memorable films.

Sean Archer (played by John Travolta) is an FBI agent with a vendetta against a terrorist named Castor Troy (played by Nicolas Cage) who killed his son. When he finally catches Troy, he learns of a bomb about to go off in Los Angeles, but Troy falls into a coma before he can learn more. With the only one who knows the exact location of it being Troy’s brother Pollux (played by Alessandro Nivola), Sean Archer takes Caster Troy’s face (literally) in a black ops mission to get the info from Pollux. However, things take a turn for the crazy as Troy wakes up from his coma and takes Archer’s face.

It looks like we have a Mexican Face Off!

First off, this plot is insane. The million things that make no sense about this premise are obvious and have been listed in many other places, even some that we would rather not think about. And the film takes this in stride, being really over-dramatic, at times indulgently so. This is a movie that could only have been made in the 90’s, as anytime after it would have been lambasted for its absurdity. The one thing that this film has become known for is the legendary performances done by our leads, John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. These performances make the film and it would not be close to as memorable if they were replaced. Why? Because of stuff like this-

Nicolas Cage starts the film like that after singing along with a choir singing Hallelujah, while headbanging. As Castor Troy, Cage is over-the-top to levels seen in only his most absurd roles. Some of this is carried over to the rest of the film, as he still has these moments when he is Sean Archer playing someone pretending to be an over the top version of himself. John Travolta starts as Sean Archer, where he is more grounded, but unintentionally absurd as well. And then he becomes Castor Troy, becomes a man pretending to be himself but actually being Nick Cage. And they both pull it off. Travolta plays a pretty spot on Cage and Cage feels like a guy trying to be an immoral criminal when he is actually a somewhat caring guy. And they do this while being absolutely hilarious with their line deliveries.

The plot for all of its madness has some interesting elements as well. As the film progresses, we get to see a very humanized cast of characters, especially on the criminal side. While Castor is a horrible monster of a man, he genuinely loves his brother, Pollux. Plus his associates can be very charming for active criminals and show him more loyalty and comradery than Troy ever would deserve. If anything, it's the FBI who get the least characterization. Which makes sense as Sean actually cares for people and becomes sympathetic towards the criminals while Castor (who spends the majority of the film around the FBI) only seems to care about himself and his brother, not even caring when he is at the grave of a child he murdered. The film has a lot of effort placed in it, more than would be expected from a slock action film.

Doves and Jesus imagery... this is the symbolism folks

Moreover, the effort is also seen with its action scenes. The scenes are heavy on style with liberal usage of slow motion and the leads leaping and “flying” a lot. Aside from the inherent silliness that the scenes have, they are well made and the editing is good enough that you know what is going on. Despite the film’s almost 2 hour and 30 minute runtime, the pacing manages to keep you engaged, with only the final battle feeling a bit long.

Face/Off is a rather odd film, yet its oddity makes it enjoyable. It has unforgettable performances, good action and stronger characterization than expected. The film’s absolutely insanity in its plot ends up making the film feel less like an action thriller and more like an action comedy. I still don’t know how intentional the final result was, but the film is honestly worth watching for Nick Cage’s performance alone. It’s perfect material for riffing and can be fun experience with multiple people. While it may not break any new ground, it will certainly be entertaining.

...why did Roger Ebert have to mention that this story could be solved by literal dick measuring.

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