This is the anniversary I’ve been most excited to write about. Once again, I was 19 when Face/Off came out, so I have now lived more life with Face/Off in the world than before it, and my life is better for it.
At the time, Face/Off was the most perfect expression of John Woo’s Hong Kong sensibilities in a Hollywood movie. Woo made movies about sworn enemies coming together or brothers torn apart, but Hollywood really only wanted his action sequences. Face/Off gave him the themes, and it still had the John Woo hallmarks of jumping with double guns, the Mexican standoff and doves flying around through a gunfight. It also represents Nicolas Cage at his most unhinged in a mainstream movie.
Everyone remembers Face/Off had awesome action and great performances but those weren’t even the film’s strongest asset. What makes Face/Off a profound film is how both Sean Archer and Castor Troy adapted to each other’s lives. And why wouldn’t they? They were both in such an unfathomable situation they had nowhere else to go.
Castor (Cage first, then wearing Travolta’s face) got to know Archer’s family and even bonded with his daughter Jamie (Dominique Swain). It’s not so much paternal, but rather he sees another kid who doesn’t fit in and rejects authority. He had to visit the grave of the child he killed and see what it did to this family. Archer (Travolta first, then wearing Cage’s face) even learned to empathize with Castor’s criminal family, Dietrich (Nick Cassavetes) and Sasha (Gina Gershon). I don’t think Archer was ever going to forgive their criminal network, but he saw they had a real family. Perhaps they were desperate enough to fall into a life of crime with Castor Troy, but he appreciated them enough to promise Sasha freedom, were she to live through this.
This was previously the domain of ’80s comedies like Vice Versa and Like Father, Like Son, or Freaky Friday in the late ’70s. Parents and kids learn to respect each other by living each ohers’ lives. There is some fish out of water comedy when Castor doesn’t know where Archer lives, but this is the dramatic version of face swapping. Well, melodramatic but the film is sincere about it.
It really goes there with the family. Castor has sex with Archer’s wife, Eve (Joan Allen). That’s rape, but Face/Off walks that fine line of allowing Allen to portray the betrayal and Cage to play Archer’s remorse for getting her involved in this, without being so explicit you can’t enjoy the rest of the movie. Castor’s relationship with Jamie flirts with lines of appropriateness too, and he gleefully crosses it once he’s revealed to be Castor. Before the end though, Castor inadvertently empowers her to defeat him by teaching her how to use a knife (so the wound won’t close). One can imagine she’ll stand up for herself forever after (along with years of therapy to discuss some other dude wearing her father’s face.)
People seem to remember Cage playing Castor. It’s understandable. He crams a lot into act one. He’s playing Sean Archer for most of the movie and that’s even better. Travolta’s good at playing the gravitas of Archer as a grieving father and grizzled agent tasked with the unthinkable assignment of wearing his enemy’s face, but it’s when he has to live as Troy that Cage really pulls out the heart of Sean Archer.
I didn’t even know Cage was making the Vampire’s Kiss face. I don’t know what took me so long to see Vampire’s Kiss. You’d think once Nicolas Cage became my favorite actor is immediately watch his most infamous movie. But it took me another decade to discover the magnificence of Vampire’s Kiss and I recognized that face he made looking at his Castor Troy reflection in the mirror. It was as appropriate as the insane face of a yuppie who thought he was a vampire, because the situation he was in was insane. He’s wearing his enemy’s face, the man who killed his son. He does the bug-eyed face before the transplant too so it’s both Castor bringing the crazy and Archer trying to cope. He also does the same entrance he did in Zandaee when he plants the bomb and greets the choir. Cage has spoken about using indie movies as workshops to see if these tools would work in mainstream movies.
Cage does get to play Castor one more time when he wakes up from a coma without his face. It’s the best shot of the movie, fleeting glances of Nicolas Cage with his face all Hellraisered, playing it nonchalantly saying, “It’s cool.” Travolta’s best work is as Castorized Archer. He unleashes his Tony Manero by way of Broken Arrow, his previous John Woo villain turn.
This is how you do a Maguffin. The science isn’t important. It just needs to sound real enough. We just wanna see Travolta and Cage swap faces. You tell us you’ve got the technology, we believe you. Just in case, have Colm Feore play the doctor. He looks like he could swap faces. They over explained the voice box. I mean, they violated the rules of it anyway, so why not just say, “Yeah, we can transplant voice boxes too.” Well, it was new technology. It hasn’t been field tested. I’ll allow it. The voice box is even stronger than they thought.
The greatest legend of the film is that Paramount wanted to change the title. I don’t know why. Face/Off is perfectly applicable to good guy vs bad guy without the literal plot. Anyway, Cage saved the day by improvising the film’s signature scene. He just went “I want to take his face… Off.” Cassavetes went with it and they kept saying face… Off so many times, the scene made it into the movie and they had to keep the title. That’s how Cage is always looking out for his films. (Co-writer Mike Werb tells the story best in his Sept 13, 2010 post on this forum.)
No one I read ever mentioned the Castor and Pollux myth. Allesandro Nivola plays Castor’s brother Pollux Troy, Troy itself being a reference to the story of The Illiad. The roles are reversed in Face/Off. Pollux is the weaker brother who needs Castor to protect him. In mythology, Pollux was a son of Zeus, and ultimately gives half of his immortality to Castor to save his life. I think the names may be a total red herring, or just because they sound cool, but I certainly appreciated that after studying ancient history and mythology in high school, I could recognize the name drops in Face/Off.
I seriously thought Face/Off was going to end with Archer forced to live with Castor’s face. That would be the tragic Hong Kong ending, and it was already set up when Castor killed the only surgeon who could do the procedure. Certainly when Castor started cutting his Archer face, I thought the Archer face was done for. But Archer’s family deserves the Hollywood ending for all he put them through, even if Archer may deserve a bittersweet victory for embarking on this crazy journey.
There was talk of doing Face/Off sequels with different pairings. That is a tragic missed opportunity for a franchise, especially for two women, two African-Americans or any other pair of underrepresented actors. I’d want them all to have the dramatic weight of enemies relating to each others’ worlds, not just action. And they should all mimic the Cage/Cassavetes improv. “I want to take her face… off.”