This week, we tackle the film that introduced John Woo to American cinema in 1997 — Face/Off! The podcast boys have a good time breaking down the pieces of this film, which might strike some as odd for being such a high-rated action film. But watching this movie now reminds you that before 1997, action movies didn’t have this same look, feel, and energy. Much like Die Hard pushing the every-man/fish out of water feel into action films, Face/Off added a slick finish with some really stylish workings — as well as some heart.
Face/Off is one of those movies that people make reference to, but not everyone will give it the time of day now. If you’re a film geek, you’ve definitely noticed the John Woo style — that could be from his work in Asian cinema, or his other American films. Most notably, Woo broke into the US market with this film, Face/Off.
At the time, most action movies were still riffing off Die Hard — just look at Speed and Speed 2: Cruise Control. While one is influenced by Die Hard, but set on a bus, the other mimics the most boring parts of both Speed and Die hard, but sets it on a cruise ship. Not so high octane now. By pulling talent out of foreign markets, Hollywood producers were able to take all the ingredients of an American action film and give it to someone with a more unique vision and style.
Originally, Face/Off was going to be the Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger showdown American audiences had always wanted. But Woo came in and nixed that idea — he also got rid of MOST of the sci-fi elements within the script. By keeping it high concept without pure sci-fi camp, Woo allowed his preferred choices — John Travolta and Nicolas Cage — to bring their own style of camp. And who else could you turn to for delivery of some ridiculous performances but these two actors, at the top of their game at this time?
I have a lot of respect for Travolta and Cage for this movie, after doing my research. Not only did they take the role seriously, they worked together to develop nuanced profiles for each character, so that when they do switch it becomes easier to embody that character. You know what? It works. When Sean Archer dons Castor Troy’s face, I don’t think of him as Troy. He’s Archer. Same goes for Castor Troy. It’s a job well done, and the talent involved deserves kudos for it.
This movie goes places you think a film won’t go, it does things you think a picture surely wouldn’t do, and then it delivers an ending that in anyone else’s hands would feel super cheesy. Yet here, it’s actually satisfying. That in itself is a victory, but the biggest victory is that action movies changed once again after this. While the everyman concept may have stayed in the mix, Hollywood now pursued slick effects, explosions, high-octane set pieces, tight close-ups of gun play, and slow motion. Glorious slow motion! Can you think of any filmmakers who were influenced by John Woo? We toss a few of our ideas in the mix in this episode.
If you haven’t seen Face/Off, or you haven’t seen it in a while, it’s worth checking out. While it’s not as deep as a Daniel Day Lewis film, there is a through line of masculine healing that drives our protagonist to not only let go of his wounds, but to heal his whole family. In a big surprise, the antagonist also shows a sense of depth and growth that you aren’t really expecting. I’m not saying he’s a good guy, but still — you don’t expect him to put in the work he does.
Next week, we get a little spectacular. And we do it now!
Max is a marketing copywriter by day, filmmaker and screenwriter by night. He resides in Charlotte, NC, and loves his dogs, watching movies, building LEGO sets, and eating food. Lots of food.You can find Max at his personal website and twitter.