John Woo, Nic Cage and Lots of Explosions: The Inescapable Importance of Face/Off
The universe of action movies is a strange and magical place. Good guys never miss. Bad guys never hit (or when they do, it’s always a flesh wound with less effect than a hangnail). Explosions liquefy bystanders and bad guys, but merely leave the heroes smeared in soot and sweat. Even the most serious and “realistic” of them ignore any conventional understanding of the laws of physics, the realities of human endurance and how difficult it is to come up with snappy one-liners while being shot at. The least realistic of them … well, they go so far into the realm of the unbelievable as to become ineffable. And there is possibly no action movie less realistic, or more delightful, than Face/Off.
If, somehow, this film has escaped your awareness, allow me to summarize. A super terrorist, played by Nicolas Cage, is about to blow up L.A. He gets caught, but no one knows where the bomb is and he ain’t talking. A super cop, played by John Travolta, is convinced by his (idiotic) colleagues to do the unthinkable — wear the super-terrorist’s face (yes, his actual face, removed via some surgical MacGuffin) and go to prison in his stead to convince his brother to reveal the location of the bomb. This is possible because, miraculously, the two have the same build and facial structure and because also, science. From there, it gets really ridiculous, as the super terrorist wakes up from his medical coma, forces the doctors — whose disregard for conventional medical ethics would have no doubt given Mengele pause, simply for having created the procedure and then using it in the first place — to put the cop’s face over his own bloody skull. He then burns all records of the super -ecret operation, murders the doctors and every cop who knows the truth, and takes over the cop’s life. Pretty basic stuff, really.
The film is directed by John Woo, who got famous via a series of iconic Hong Kong action movies that pushed standard American action tropes to and beyond their logical extremes. His films are glorious, silly operas of violence, slow-motion flights of doves and gun fetishism so eroticized they can really only be called porn. They are not for everyone, but they are certainly unique.
Nic Cage spends half of his time pretending to be John Travolta pretending to be Nic Cage, and John Travolta spends a similar amount of time pretending to be Nic Cage pretending to be John Travolta. Again, just your basic, run-of-the-mill action-movie premise! Cage chews scenery with a vigor that has to be seen to be believed; Travolta can only keep up because he’s channeling Cage more than half the time. In any case, it’s a tour-de-force performance by Woo, Cage and Travolta, a symphony of silly dialogue, byzantine yet insipid plotting and kickass explosions.
It is, in many ways, the perfect action movie. It went meta before meta was a thing action movies were doing. It’s the precursor to the zero-fucks approach taken by recent franchises like The Expendables and The Fast and the Furious. The ethos is simple: more, bigger, dumber, until there is no more, no bigger and no dumber to go. The explosions make Michael Bay cry tears of jealous rage. The acting makes every actor in the world quake in awe (or at least, it should). The dialogue is so perfectly forgettable between cliched one-liners that your mind is never encumbered by caring what anyone is saying, freeing you to simply bathe in the pure visual poetry of everything and anything on screen being shot to pieces and/or exploding. Plus, it ends with a fucking sweet speedboat chase that has to be seen to be believed.
Setting aside all of that, the movie also has a higher purpose: It is an amazing Voight-Kampff style test for discovering the overly self-serious. The test is administered thusly: show the film to anyone with even a passing appreciation for action movies, and if they react with anything but pure, unbridled joy, they need to see a doctor, stat, about getting that stick removed from their ass. (I know; I failed the test spectacularly as a young man and was ridiculed for it, rightly, when I chose to write about my failing years later.) You cannot love action movies and not love this film unless you are a grumbling, pretentious wretch who thinks their explosion-laden idiotainment needs to be “realistic” or at least “make a damn lick of sense.”
Perfect action movie. Showcase for the greatest actor of our generation and ultimate action-movie auteur. Personality test for determining who is a self-serious dick. Face/Off is all these things, and more (including a drinking game you can play when the movie screens Friday, September 11 at the Sie FilmCenter). Do your part and watch it, again or for the first time. Watch it for the explosions. Watch it for the Cage. Or just watch it to make sure you aren’t the equivalent of a joyless robot who can never know what it is to be alive.
Get your drink on and your Face/Off starting at 10 p.m. Friday, September 11 at the Sie FilmCenter. Tickets are $11, or $8 for students/seniors and $7 for Denver Film Society members. For tickets and more info, visit the Face/Off event page of the Denver Film Society website.
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