To celebrate TIFF’s ongoing Bangkok Dangerous: The Cinema Of Nicolas Cage series, Alan Jones has resurrected his retrospective of the actor’s work entitled The Nic Cage Project. In this edition, Jones takes a look at the John Woo’s guns akimbo classic Face/Off – playing tonight at the Lightbox.
“If I were to let you suck my tongue, would you be grateful?”
These are the words Castor Troy (Nic Cage, at the time) uses to seduce the flight attendant on his private jet. Funny thing is, when I was a child, and Face/Off was my brother’s favourite movie, and I would watch it with him ad nauseum on a pan & scan VHS, I did not realize exactly how weird that request was. I just thought it was normal for people to suck on each other’s tongues. Most other movies don’t detail the exact tongue action of an average “french kiss,” so I figured that was it. Girl sucks on guy’s tongue. But I digress…
Now, if I were to go back to film school and write a paper on the nature of identity, Face/Off would make for a really easy assignment. Sean Archer (John Travolta, to start) is an FBI agent (“Archer” itself is one of those go-to movie names that seems to be used a lot, kind of like “Kowalski”). He captures terrorist/assassin/drug dealer/all-around-badass Castor Troy (Cage, to start). Then, in order to find out where in Los Angeles a bomb may have been planted, he has Castor’s face transplanted onto his skull (obviously), so he can squeeze the info out of Castor’s nerdy little brother, Pollux (The Troys’ parents obviously didn’t go for the conventional). Unfortunately for Archer, however, Troy wakes up from his coma, gets his henchman to force the doctors to give him Archer’s face, and then destroys all evidence that a face transfer ever happened, so the world has no idea that Troy isn’t Archer and Archer isn’t Troy. At this point, if you’ve lost track, Travolta is Troy and Cage is Archer.
The themes surrounding the representation of identity are all really obvious. There’s a lot of mirrors, Archer’s always freaking out when he sees himself in one. When Archer goes to prison and realizes he has to beat someone up in the manner Castor Troy would, he begins to like it. When his wife (Joan Allen) doesn’t recognize him, he begins to cry, because he’s really kind of a bitch (he also hasn’t had sex with her in 2 months, which, according to Troy, makes him a “loser”). But the real pleasure of the film lies in the way the star’s personalities intermingle. So for Cage, he starts off by doing his Crazy Cage thing, dressed as a priest, molesting choir girls and making exaggerrated faces. Then, he has to act like John Travolta, because Archer basically is John Travolta. But when he goes to prison, he has to behave like John Travolta pretending to be Nic Cage, and that’s kind of awesome. As for Travolta, we get to see him be John Travolta (booooring), then we get to see him act like Nic Cage, and then we get to see him pretending to be Nic Cage’s version of John Travolta, so obviously he fucks Archer’s wife (it’s about time someone did) and starts smoking, and generally becomes a lot sexier. He also kicks the shit out of Hyde from That 70s Show.
The idea behind the movie is still novel, though. It’s kind of like the logline for The Departed (or Infernal Affairs for the pompous assholes out there) in that you hear it and say “How did no one think of that until now?” I’m sure the general plot’s been used before, but being released in the late 90s, Face/Off came at the right time to capture the distrust a lot of people have for plastic surgery. However, given that Gene Simmons’ face was wrapped in bandages for a week in that one episode of Family Jewels where he gets a facelift, the quality of the face transplants seen here are a little far-fetched. I would also imagine they would need to have the same blood-type, and they don’t, which becomes a plot point later in the film. Whatever. It’s cool. This movie rules. Shut up, brain.
There’s one other sticky plot point, though. Early in the movie, when the FBI’s Hot Shit Scientist (played by Canadian actor Colm Feore) explains the face transplant process to Archer, he also explains that they would remove John Travolta chub, and use some laser device to make his hair the same as Troy’s, and use plastic surgery to get rid of his bullet wound, which he got when Troy (Cage at the time, with a moustache!) shot him, and then the bullet went through his ribcage and killed his son. Yeah, Archer really hates Troy. But anyways, I seriously doubt the surgical procedure went so far as to make sure they both had identical copies of the other’s genitalia, because at that point you could basically transplant the brain instead, and seeing as Troy gets to know Mrs. Archer as “man and wife,” she would get to see his penis. So basically, unless John Travolta and Nic Cage have the same size penis, the entire movie falls apart. I just made you think comparatively about Nic Cage and John Travolta’s penises. You can thank me later.
Finally, however, I have to discuss the film’s director: Hong Kong action-meister John Woo, known for slow-motion gunfights where people in sunglasses shoot two overpowered handguns simultaneously, and things get really torn up, and then it happens in a church, and then doves fly everywhere, and then there’s a lot of really poorly written melodrama overlayed with some terribly overwrought music (I’m not exaggerrating, this actually describes most John Woo movies). Not that I’m complaining, mind you, Woo is one of the best action directors out there. This movie pretty comprehensively makes use of floating cameras during the gunfights, getting shot coverage on things that we could only dream of in a Michael Bay film. There is a sense in which you could call Woo a maximalist – you can forgive the sometimes temporally clunky editing, the mix and match between slow-mo and regular speed, and the fact that the stunt doubles are really, really obvious because in every shot, something interesting is happening. So I guess John Woo directs gunfights like Basement Jaxx makes pop songs – it all just kind of works when you throw everything in there.
And as for the melodrama, I don’t really know how to defend it. It’s kind of bizarre seeing Travolta act out scenes which would feel much less out of place in one of the A Better Tomorrow movies, but it still entertains. It plays more to Cage’s strengths than it does Travolta’s, but he has less to do when it comes to being melodramatic. Although, when Troy wakes up from his coma and smokes a cigarette with a big red stain where his face is supposed to be, it’s pretty crazy. Also, there’s this one scene where Nic Cage, as Archer pretending to be Troy, does some ambiguous-looking drugs, looks in a mirror, sees Cage’s face, and repeatedly says “It’s me! It’s me! It’s me!” Then he strikes the Vampire’s Kiss face (eyebrows up, nostrils flared, giant grin, head tilted back) and Gina Gershon punches him out. It’s pretty awesome.
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