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September 25, 2014

Face/Off (1997)
Director: John Woo
Actors: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen

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Synopsis: FBI Agent, Sean Archer (John Travolta), finally detains his arch-nemesis Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) – the man who killed his son some years before. Castor’s brother, Pollux (Alessandro Nivola), holds the key to a terrorist plot the Troys were planning together, so Archer undergoes a radical surgical procedure whereby he takes on the face of the comatose Castor, so he can earn Pollux’s confidence to foil the plot. Everything works as planned, until Castor wakes up and steals the face of Archer….

Review: This baroque, lurid and thoroughly enjoyable action romp almost seems quaint and a touch dated now as it came at the back-end of the golden period of 80s/90s action pictures, and looks well out of place compared to today’s more sober, realist-inflected action landscape (nostalgia exercise The Expendables excepted of course!)

That said, Face/Off is certainly a classic of its type, and its sheer extravagance found an apt director in Hong Kong veteran, John Woo, giving the film’s delirious drama a visual poetry to match (epic slo-mo, choice use of soundtrack, explosions galore, flying doves and visual motifs that play on the central ‘face/off’ dialectic of the narrative).

The face-swapping ‘hook’ is actually a genius high-concept – not only for the dramaturgical excitement as we watch as Troy and Archer switch personas and have to deal with the opportunities/repercussions of such a scenario, but it’s fascinating to watch both actors interpret the demonstration of the respective transferences of character. I can see the sense in giving Nicolas Cage the role of Castor Troy, because he’s arguably the ‘deeper’ actor of the two leads – able to quickly establish the maverick malevolence of Troy in the first few minutes, before settling into the tricky part of playing the conflicted Archer trapped behind Troy’s face, while John Travolta’s more surface charisma works well for playing Troy when he’s revelling in the opportunity of exploiting the trappings of Sean Archer’s upstanding life. (September 2014)

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