Published July 1, 1997
Face/Off by John Woo offers what is perhaps the most preposterous plot ever for an action movie, and that is saying something. Most postmodern action thrillers—see, for instance, Speed 2 and Con Air—aspire to nothing higher than nudging you in the ribs from time to time to remind you that you are watching a movie. They make in-jokes out of the self-consciously cinematic quality of their characters and situations and images. Face/Off, by contrast, is what we might call metaphysical postmodernism. Here the cinematic clichés are put together in such a way as to raise (well, sort of) serious philosophical questions about identity, and moral agency and family loyalty and other heavy stuff. It’s an original idea, but not enough of one to overcome the inertia of the stock footage of blasting and shooting and fighting.
For Woo starts with a basic action-adventure flick with lots of fist- and kick-fights, gunplay and explosions centered around a classic confrontation between a cop and a criminal mastermind. To this he adds a personal grudge between the cop (actually FBI man) and the c-m because the c-m killed the cop’s five year old son (inadvertently—he was trying to kill the cop). In addition, he has thrown in some cop-on-the-edge stuff—sexual frustration with the wife and father-daughter tensions with a precocious tearaway teenager—and the usual humanizing touches for the bad guy—tenderness for a brother, a secret love-child with his mistress. So far, familiar. But then comes the touch of originality: he switches the cop and the criminal.
In real life, this could not happen, but the great thing about being a postmodern filmmaker is that you don’t have to worry about real life. Instead, you just produce some technobabbling scientist and all of a sudden a surgeon is removing the face of the cop, Sean Archer (John Travolta) and transplanting in its place the face of his adversary, Castor Troy (Nicholas Cage). The aim of this top secret operation is for Archer to impersonate Troy in the maximum security, “Erewhon” prison ( “the Geneva convention does not apply here; Amnesty International doesn’t know we exist” ) where his brother—inevitably called “Pollux” (Alessandro Nivola) is being held and find out when he plans to blow up L.A. But Castor, who Archer is assured is “a turnip” after his last encounter with the FBI, comes suddenly to life. “Nothing like having your face cut off to disturb your sleep,” he says. So he captures the doctor and forces him to sew Archer’s face on him, thus completing the exchange. He also kills everyone who knows about it, so that poor old Sean is apparently stuck in the hell-hole of a prison permanently.
Having swallowed the camel of this transformation, there is no point in straining at the gnat of, say, Sean’s daring escape from Erewhon, or all the near-death experiences that both he and Castor (each now playing the other part) survive in the increasingly violent and very protracted finale. The interesting things for those of us over the age of twelve, who have seen plenty of cinematic explosions before, are Castor’s partial domestication under the influence of Sean’s unfamiliar suburban existence, the breath of fresh air he brings into the lives of his wife (Joan Allen) and daughter (Dominique Swain) and the briefly heady effect of a whiff of the life of criminal license on Sean himself. Pollux tells the real Castor that Sean is “beginning to enjoy being you,” and the latter, who is always taunting his enemy for not having “fun,” replies: “Good!”
The switch is a humanizing experience for both men and becomes most piquant when Troy apologizes to Archer’s wife, to whom he is presumably beginning to feel genuinely close, “for all those years when I was an insufferable bore.” Likewise, Archer as Troy apologizes to his mistress, Sasha (Gina Gershon), for his alter ego’s behavior. “I’ve said and done some things that made your life harder. Look, Sash, I’m not the same person you remember and for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.” This is both funny and serious, as is the moment when Sean’s wife takes him to the grave of their son and says to the man who is really the murderer: “He took our baby, Sean; he took our little boy.” Troy willingly holds her hand and comforts her—for what he himself did. Is this contrition? Does it deserve forgiveness?
Unfortunately, we never really find out. In the end the commercial demands of the action-thriller remain paramount, which means that the switcheroo has to be unswitched and the bad guy has to reaffirm his evil nature by getting what’s coming to him from the good guy. Forget all that stuff (and quite right too!) about moral equivalence. Woo is only able to touch lightly on the ostensibly serious issues he raises—which may be, after all, for the best. Since such a complete exchange of identities is impossible, it would only serve to make the joke too ponderous to explore the issue any more deeply. I would, however, have liked Woo to devote a little more attention to another interesting detail, which is the fiendishly devious Troy’s decision to defuse his own bomb on television, become a national hero and thus make more money than he could have made in his own person, holding the city to ransom—and with less risk of getting caught.
That was what, on a small scale, the FBI originally thought that Richard Jewell was up to in Atlanta, and the fact that they found out he wasn’t doesn’t mean that someone else won’t get the same idea sooner or later. This was the one bit of the film that could be substantially true, and it deserved to occupy a more central place in it—if only to offset the torpor induced by the increasingly boring bangs of its last 20 minutes.