Face/Off, the third film made in this country by the action master John Woo (Hard Target and Broken Arrow were the others), is a triumph of graceful chaos. Bodies spin and hurtle through the air, shooting or getting shot at — always in rapturous slow motion that recalls the balletic carnage of Sam Peckinpah. Yet Woo also finds another kind of grace: a rich and intense emotional context for the mayhem. The movie is often preposterous but never meaningless.
Woo’s best films (The Killer, Hard Boiled) aren’t just bullet marathons. They’re about loyalty, loss, betrayal, duality. In Face/Off, the two antagonists aiming guns at each other (a classic Woo image) are aiming at their own faces. The premise, by scripters Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, is diabolical: What if you had to wear the face of the man who killed your son? And what if he, in turn, assumed your face and your life, while you were driven into isolation and squalor?
The hero, FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta), has lived for six years in obsessive grief. He can’t rest until he catches the terrorist who killed his little boy — a freaky nihilist named Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), who plans to wipe out L.A. with a bomb. After Troy has been rendered comatose, Archer has his own face removed and replaced by Troy’s, so he can win the trust of Troy’s cohorts and find out where the bomb is. Later, the faceless Troy awakens and plucks Archer’s face out of cold storage so he can take over Archer’s life.
Face/Off is a masterstroke of casting: we get to watch two great, physically inventive actors playing each other. When Travolta is Archer, he’s clenched and burned out; the death of his son has drained all relaxation out of his body. As the happy psycho Troy, Travolta moves like a man who can be relaxed anywhere, in any man’s body, and he does everything — loading a gun, taking off his coat — with a flourish, as if playing to an audience in his head. Here, as in Woo’s Broken Arrow, Travolta makes casual brutality seem like a state of grace.
Cage’s performance follows the exact opposite track. He starts off in full crowd-pleasing mode as Troy, dressed as a priest, squeezing a choir girl’s butt as he sings “Hallelujah!” Yet when Cage becomes the virtuous Archer, he doesn’t get duller — he gets weirder and scarier. He pulls off a magnificent burst of rage when Archer first sees Troy’s face in the mirror. Cage also comes up with a truly bizarre bug-eyed grimace that stylizes Archer’s horror at wearing a face he despises.
The core of Face/Off is how each man adapts to his new family. Troy, in a perverse way, tries to be a good husband and dad to Archer’s wife (Joan Allen) and daughter (Dominique Swain); Archer, who can’t help being decent, baffles Troy’s girlfriend (Gina Gershon) and confronts living proof of Troy’s potential redemption. The dramatic scenes have emotional gravity, while the exhilarating action sequences defy gravity. In Face/Off, as in his other classics, John Woo fuses the masks of comedy and tragedy to give the action genre a new and beautiful face.