The big-budget action movies of the late ’90s were supposed to work a particular way. They would start with an absurd, over-the-top premise—the president of the United States fighting the terrorists who had taken over his plane, say, or a team of convicts highjacking a prison-transport plane and using it for nefarious means. The director would then use that premise to string together a series of ridiculous escalating set pieces. And the producers would hire some of the best actors available, with the idea that these familiar faces would somehow ground what we were watching, that they’d make it all seem somehow plausible. Maybe that was the thinking behind 1997’s Face/Off, but that’s not what happened. Instead, that movie gave us two of Hollywood’s hammiest, weirdest leading men going off on a rabid scenery-munching competition, dragging the movie itself to new heights of goofiness along the way.
But Nicolas Cage and John Travolta, the movie’s two bug-shit leads, were not the only lunatics involved. Face/Off came from John Woo, the single greatest action director of all time, and it’s the one moment he got to do full John Woo shit with a big American budget. During his Hollywood period, Woo made a grand total of six theatrically released movies before going into movie jail and eventually returning to Hong Kong, where he continues to do great work today. But only one of those six movies gave us the full-on John Woo experience, with doves flapping in candlelit chapels and conflicted heroes wondering if they’re on the right side of the law. Face/Off was the moment that Woo got to be gloriously, euphorically himself in front of the largest possible global audience, and he was not trying to hold back Travolta or (especially) Cage.
Face/Off was, of course, a movie with a fully ridiculous premise. Woo knew that, and he didn’t care. He shot the opening scene, with dastardly villain Cage attempting to sniper-murder virtuous supercop Travolta and killing his young son instead, like a dream, replete with tinkly music box chimes and a weird out-of-focus glaze on everything. This was the right move. Right away, Woo did away with any idea of realism, thus refusing to allow audiences to wonder whether anything that followed was even the slightest bit possible.
Less than 10 minutes into the movie, Woo let loose with his first full-on action scene, one that involved a Jeep playing chicken with a taking-off plane and a jet engine blowing Cage 100 feet into a metal grate. And soon enough, he gave us Travolta allowing doctors to remove the comatose Cage’s face and place it onto his own, all so that he could go to a far-fetched high-tech dystopian prison and ask Cage’s younger brother where he’s hidden a massive bomb. This, of course, led to many, many instances of Cage and Travolta pointing guns at one another melodramatically. It was, after all, a John Woo movie.
Of course, neither Cage nor Travolta could match the elegant badassery of Chow Yun-Fat, the De Niro to Woo’s Scorsese. Instead, both of them went big, in memorable ways. With the body-swap premise—something made even more ridiculous by the fact that Cage and Travolta looked absolutely nothing like one another—both Cage and Travolta got a good crack at playing Castor Troy, the movie’s delectably over-the-top bad guy. Castor Troy is one of the most beautifully ridiculous Hollywood creations of my lifetime. In one early scene, Cage plays Troy while he’s planting a bomb in the Los Angeles Convention Center. Presumably to avoid attention, Troy is dressed as a priest. But Cage could never play someone who’s avoiding attention. So he dances like an overjoyed spazz before sliding up to a choir girl, hissing cuss words at her, and then grabbing her ass in full view of anyone in the immediate vicinity, making Nicolas Cage faces at the camera the whole time.
For the bulk of the movie, Travolta played Castor Troy, and there was absolutely nothing subtle about his performance; he took particular delight in creeping on both the wife and the daughter of his nemesis. But Cage still got the better deal; even when he’s the good guy, he’s still pretending to be the bad guy and doing bad-guy things. That means we get moments like the one where Cage initiates a prison brawl, quite possibly the greatest pure overacting scene in a career full of them.
Cage was, at this point, new to the whole action-hero thing. For years, he’d been a respected character actor, eventually winning an Oscar for playing a self-destructive drunk. A year prior, he’d had his first big action-movie role in The Rock, playing the nervous motormouth foil to Sean Connery’s growling badass. Earlier that same summer, he’d been the star of Con Air, a movie that required him to play the straight man (and, for some godforsaken reason, to adapt an abysmal Forrest Gumpian Southern accent) while guys like John Malkovich got to have most of the fun. But in Face/Off, Cage had all the fun, coming off like a man made of pure electricity and cocaine.
Watching the movie today, it feels like Cage ad-libbed his entire role. The shrug after he shoots an FBI informant and then throws her body from a moving plane? The high-as-fuck scene where he twirls his hand in front of his face while musing about taking his enemy’s face off? The bit where he wakes up from his coma, doing the Undertaker zombie sit-up in his hospital bed? It’s all just so much. Early in the movie, there’s a scene with Travolta where Cage’s Troy briefly tries to convince Travolta’s Sean Archer to join him on the dark side, and this exchange happens: “Try terrorism for hire! We’ll blow some shit up! It’s more fun!” “Shut the fuck up.” “You watch your fucking mouth!” Cage enunciated the words fucking mouth loudly enough to drown out the gunfight happening around him.
The funniest thing: At the time, we considered this sort of overdemonstrative bullshit to be good acting. Face/Off got great reviews, and all of them talked about the great job that Cage did. Later on, the world would turn on Cage’s insanity, forcing him down into the direct-to-DVD world. But it was on full display even when Cage was on top of the world. And while it’s hard to call what Cage did in Face/Off a good performance in retrospect, it was certainly mesmerizing.
And if Woo didn’t hold Cage back, Cage didn’t hold Woo back either. Woo made sure to get all his shit in. When someone shoots someone else with a shotgun, that person flies back at least 10 feet through the air. When Cage’s Sean Archer gets high for the first time, he does it with a shaven-headed Nick Cassavetes barking silliness at him the whole time, doing his best to keep up with Cage. The entire idea of the prison, a hidden place on a decommissioned oil rig where all the convicts wear enormous magnetic boots, is fascinating bullshit. (The movie was originally intended to be near-future sci-fi, but Woo decided to set it in what was then the present day, figuring that audiences wouldn’t care how insane some of these concepts were. He was right! We didn’t!) Nobody has ever filmed trench coats flapping in the wind or two-gun-blasting heroes flying through the air with anything like the verve that Woo had, and it remains such a pleasure to see him getting a chance to go all-in on a big-budget Hollywood movie.
Face/Off makes for a terrifically entertaining viewing experience today. It’s the ’90s apex of Hong Kong action cinema’s Hollywood influence. It’s Woo and Cage and Travolta all in their most fired-up, overdriven forms. And it’s ’90s-era excess delivered more purely and lovingly than we’d ever seen or than we would ever see again. Face/Off is, simply put, the peak of a very particular era in action movies. Things would have to change after that, and change is what they did.
Other notable 1997 action movies: After Die Hard, we got a solid decade of Die Hard-on-a-whatever variant, and that era finally climaxed with the immortal Air Force One. The very idea was goofy enough to demand absolute respect. Like Passenger 57 or Executive Decision, it was Die Hard on a plane. But unlike those movies, it was Die Hard on a plane with John McClane as the actual fucking president. Somehow, Harrison Ford sold this, and I remain convinced that we would not have to deal with a Trump presidency if this movie had not put forward the idea of a badass two-fisted president. (Trump used parts of the Air Force One score during the Republican National Convention last year. Seriously, there are moments when I think taste in movies is the only thing I have in common with that guy.)
This was the era of big-budget excess in Hollywood action blockbusters, just before Armageddon happened and all those movies broke off and became their own genre of popcorn movie, one with little connection to action-cinema history. The aforementioned Con Air—a movie beloved by many even though it’s way more dumb than it is fun—certainly fit the bill. So did The Fifth Element, in which Luc Besson shot a bleach-blond Bruce Willis into a loud, overwhelming, richly imagined future-world. (The Jackal, which also starred Willis, told a political thriller-type story, but it moved like an action movie.) Tomorrow Never Dies, in which Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond teamed up with Hong Kong hardass Michelle Yeoh to take down a media mogul who wanted to start a world war so that he could sell more newspapers, also qualified.
And then there were the bombs. The Saint pointedly failed at introducing a new Bond-esque franchise to the world. Speed 2: Cruise Control attempted to replicate the plot of the first movie, except without Keanu Reeves and set on a cruise ship instead of a bus. This would prove to be a bad idea. Fire Down Below effectively ended Steven Seagal’s career as someone whose movies would appear in theaters before they ended up on Blockbuster shelves.
But some cool things were happening in Hollywood at the time, too. Breakdown put Kurt Russell, playing against type as an in-over-his-head yuppie, into a great little isolated desert thriller. Alien: Resurrection enlisted Jean-Pierre Jeunet to use his great gift for memorable imagery and bring back some of the series’ prime Aliens-era intensity; it deserves to be remembered better. And Hong Kong madman Tsui Hark’s Jean-Claude Van Damme/Dennis Rodman buddy movie Double Team is one of the most delightfully strange Hollywood movies in existence; it ends, after all, with Van Damme fighting both Mickey Rourke and a tiger in a Roman coliseum that’s full of land mines. Seek it out. It’s glorious.
Hong Kong, meanwhile, was doing fine without Woo or Tsui. In Sammo Hung’s Mr. Nice Guy, Jackie Chan played a TV chef who had to fight Italian mobsters and gang toughs. And Hung also co-directed Jet Li in Once Upon A Time In China And America, Li’s final period epic in the role of Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hong. But my favorite Asian action movie of the year wasn’t Chinese. It was Japanese master Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks, which was only barely an action movie. Really, it was a beautiful and lyrical impressionistic drama about love and loss, and it had a scene where Takeshi puts a guy’s eye out with a broken chopstick.
Next time: The Daywalker lives. It’s Blade, motherfucker!