What makes someone want to watch Face/Off again? For those of us that reached adolescence towards the end of the 90s it could be that it reminds us of a time when watching action films was the only chance to see explosions and guns. For a ten-year-old that was enough for me to try and buy a ticket, and when that failed, rent it from the friendly (and with hindsight very irresponsible) owner of the video shop round the corner.
I remember a vicious humour that ran throughout, an excellent opening sequence and an interesting premise where both leads play the hero and the villain. And guns. Lots of guns and explosions. I couldn’t have been happier at 10 years old. At 30, however, the overwhelming feeling I had was not excitement, but boredom. I had to resist the urge to go on IMDB to check the trivia, to make a cup of tea, to do the ironing. So, what has changed in 20 years?
Let’s start with the action. John Woo is considered the Godfather of modern cinematic gunplay and it is easy to see his influence has been huge. However, cinema has moved on so much since then that watching two men fire off thousands of rounds without hitting each other once seems more absurd than gripping. Action movies have taught us that the relevance of a character to the plot determines their ability to dodge cascades of bullets. Lead actors cannot be hit. Supporting characters will often go down in the second act. God help you if you show a picture of your family to anyone. We know this now in a way we didn’t in 1997. We know that John Travolta and Nicolas Cage are impervious to harm until the last 10 minutes which takes out any sense of danger from the gunfight.
But John Woo fans would say it’s the choreography of the gunfights that make it entertaining, not the danger. Maybe so, but not in this film. Without wanting to I couldn’t help noticing the jarring change from actor to stuntman in many of the shots (the final boat chase is particularly bad for this). Often a character will jump positions across the room in the blink of an eye, always a sign of poor editing. During gunfights characters are constantly jumping and flipping for no reason. There is one henchman during the shootout at Nick Cassavettes’ house who seems incapable of moving two metres without clattering into a table or a window. It’s honestly a bit of a relief when he’s shot. I know this is the style John Woo fans adore. But compare the choreography to The Matrix, made just two years later. There is an obvious debt The Matrix owes to John Woo’s style of action. But it also made his style of action obsolete.
What about the performances? As I’ve said, Face/Off has an interesting premise where we get to see John Travolta and Nicolas Cage play both hero and villain. We are not expecting nuance here, but cracking delivery of one-liners and entertaining pantomime. We get neither. John Woo has been successful in bagging two big names for his film, but less successful in then controlling them. Travolta was nicknamed “One Take John” for his ability to get a scene done in one go. This really shows through in the film, with Travolta never quite managing to convey neither a sense of heroism when playing Archer nor danger when playing Troy. As Troy he is more of a creep, groping his secretary (to her astonishment rather than anger, very 90s) and having extremely uncomfortable interactions with his “daughter” Jamie. Perhaps more takes would have strengthened his performance.
Likewise, Nicolas Cage is completely off the leash. It is always fun to watch him do his ‘mad eyes’ and off-beat delivery of his lines. But it does end up with you laughing more at the film than with it. Some of the scenes are so over-acted that it makes you wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. I spent a lot of the film feeling very sorry for Joan Allen, playing Archer’s wife. She has next to no character (‘Archer’s wife’ pretty much sums it up) and must try to get something out of scenes which may have a blubbering Nicolas Cage hamming it up, or John Travolta with his unique take on creepiness. That she walks away from this largely unscathed is serious testament to her acting ability.
90s actions films have a special place in my heart. The lack of CGI makes the action visceral and the predictable plots and script make them fun to watch when the inner ten-year-old reminds me how long it has been since our last explosion. Before watching it again, I would have said Face/Off would have had a place on the list next to Con Air, Under Siege, Air Force One, Goldeneye, Rush Hour, Mission Impossible and many more. But time has not been kind to Face/Off and the only feeling I had when the credits rolled was determination that I will never, ever watch it again.