It’s not exactly a new observation to point out that Nicolas Cage has some wild performances under his belt. His more outlandish roles range from clunky to shocking, largely depending on the context and the way his directors handle him. At Cage’s worst, watching him devour every line and spit it back out makes you want to sink into your couch to hide from the awkwardness. But when he and his co-creators are on the same page, things can get interesting.
By the time leering criminal Castor Troy (Cage) sneers, “You know, I could eat a peach for hours” while attempting to flirt with a flight attendant who’s secretly an undercover officer in John Woo’s Face/Off, you know you’re in for a good time. The borderline-cringe, over-the-top nature of the innuendo would’ve fallen flat in most action-thrillers, but here it perfectly captures Troy’s callous brazenness. Similarly preposterous dialogue is thrown around throughout the film, complemented by equally fantastical action set pieces replete with droves of white doves and flaming airborne.
This absurd, fever-dream-like quality that Face/Off embraces from start to finish is intentional. As an action-thriller that hinges on a dubious facial switcheroo, Face/Off does not pretend to be a serious, high-concept narrative. Instead, it flaunts its ridiculous ideas like battle scars and consciously infuses humor into a story marked with melodramatic pathos.
In a Vulture interview, Woo said he approached Face/Off as “a comedy-like movie” where the only way to make the “unreal” nature of the central face-swap believable was to grant the actors complete freedom to do “whatever they wanted.” This is amply clear in the way John Travolta’s traumatized FBI agent Sean Archer adds appropriate depth to his character despite the constant melodramatic excess, while Cage’s Troy engages in terrifying scenery chewing that induces hilarious and chilling results.
The real fun, however, starts when Travolta as Troy, playing Archer, assumes the stage, laughing maniacally at the real Sean Archer, who’s now trapped with Troy’s face in prison. While the implications of Troy as Archer pretending to be an FBI agent are unnerving, Travolta hams it up to operatic extremes, melding humor with unhinged cruelty as he snickers at the real Archer’s fate. Be it the way he shamelessly flirts with Archer’s wife, Eve (Joan Allen) while impersonating the FBI agent, or brutally murders the FBI Director in his office and makes it look like a heart attack, Troy-as-Archer is as entertaining as he is vile.
On the flip side, Cage, who gets the opportunity to go delightfully bonkers as Troy through the film’s first half, slips into the shoes of a man stamped with the sins of a filicidal super-criminal. Before the swap, Cage as Troy plants a ticking bomb in a cathedral and escapes, but not before impersonating a particularly handsy, headbanging priest (Cage’s expressions have transformed this sequence into a timeless meme). The results are hilarious, as Troy’s motive is to attract less attention, and the immediate and deliberate subversion of logical expectations — a running theme — cements Face/Off as an action film with an inimitable DNA.
Cage, even by his own standards, goes for broke.
At its core, mistaken identity is a nightmarish premise, glimpses of which are seen when Archer-as-Troy is hounded in prison (he escapes by dramatically begging for a cigarette and somehow starting a riot) and when he screams in agony while pretending to laugh maniacally as Troy. These emotionally resonant moments are also laced with subtle ridicule, as Face/Off pretends identity resides in our faces alone, with our bodies, personalities, and individual tics playing absolutely no role in contributing to who we are. The outlandishness is called out by Archer before he undergoes the face swap, and this little moment gears up audiences for the wild, escalating madness to come.
There’s a reason why Face/Off stands out as an anomaly among the genre titles of its time. A chunk of the central performances feels spontaneous, while the action feels like something you’d witness while having an out-of-body experience. At one point, when a faceless Troy wakes up from a coma, he sits up in the hospital bed like Dracula waking from a slumber in his coffin, while an ominous thunderstorm rages in the background. Everything is so damn dramatic; after Troy shoots the undercover flight attendant he was flirting with, he simply shrugs and hucks her out of the aircraft.
While such excess absolutely should not work in favor of a story about the sudden transposition of identity, and the weight (and gleeful chaos) of walking in someone else’s shoes, it does. Even Archer’s corny signature gesture, where he affectionately strokes his wife’s face with his palm, takes on an endearing tint by the end. Every tonally discordant element in Face/Off somehow meshes together into a bonkers but cohesive and incredibly entertaining whole.
Face/Off is streaming on Amazon Prime.
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