Released around the same time as Con Air and The Rock, Face/Off completes a trilogy of action films in the late 1990s starring Nicolas Cage. Directed by famed Hong Kong action film connoisseur John Woo, it represents one final hurrah for the seemingly dying breed of action films that were so popular from the late 1980s. In coming years comic book films would surpass the modern action film as the common consumption of teenage to young adult males, but in Face/Off they had one last old school action film to enjoy.
Sean Archer (John Travolta) is an FBI Agent who blames master-criminal Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) for the death of his son. Having finally cornered Troy, Archer knocks him out and brings him in only to discover that he has placed a bomb in the city. The only person who knows its location is Castor’s brother Pollux, but he refuses to speak to anyone but his brother. Archer agrees to undergo an experimental surgery to swap faces with Troy in order to get the information. However Troy awakes shortly afterwards and has his face swapped with Archer’s in order to arrest his foe and steal his life permanently.
John Woo had attempted to create a Hong Kong-style action film with a Hollywood budget before in Broken Arrow, but it is Face/Off where he really found his feet. A high-speed, tightly paced action film with enough explosions, gunplay and slow-motion duel-gun fight scenes to shake a stick at. At its core there are two sensational performances by Cage and Travolta, each desperately trying to outdo each other playing the lunatic and the straight-laced agent. Cage just edges it on both fronts, but both men clearly loved impersonating one another and the result is a central relationship that keeps Face/Off feeling fresh and intriguing.
Outside of the central pairing Face/Off boasts what, at the time of release, were the most outrageous fight scenes and car chases ever committed to celluloid. Since surpassed by films like The Transporter and Crank, Face/Off remains one of the most breath-taking displays of high-octane action. There are wonderful slow-motion gun fights, an astounding final boat sequence and Woo’s influence permeates through each and every scene. To pick holes in the film seems pointless, although it does run a little too long for complete comfort, but when the action is this good you really can forgive it that.
Clearly stronger than both Con Air and The Rock, Face/Off marks Nicolas Cage’s finest foray into action films. After this he began producing more and more terrible B-Movie films as he desperately tried to recapture the spirit of Face/Off but failed every time. At least he can be proud of his duel role of Archer and Troy and gave the modern action film one last big exposure before Batman, the X-Men and Spider-Man took the action crown.