Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 28, 2003)
If I needed to choose the Worst Trailer Ever, I might select the teaser for 1997ís Face/Off. Rarely have I seen a clip that so severely turned me off on a flick. My then-girlfriend still wanted to see it, though, and she essentially convinced me to do so as well.
Man, did I feel happy she did! Despite that atrocious promo, the movie itself turned out to be simply thrilling and exciting. More than five years after that initial screening, I canít say that Face/Off still rocks me like it did in 1997, but the movie continues to provide a cool experience.
Face/Off starts with a prologue set about six years prior to the main events. We see arch-criminal Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) shoot law enforcement agent Sean Archer (John Travolta). Archer escapes with a superficial wound, but the bullet passes through him and kills his young son Mike.
Once we come to ďpresent dayĒ, we find that Archer continued on Castorís trail for that entire period. After a violent sequence, Archer apprehends Castorís techie brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola) after the apparent death of Castor.
With Pollux in custody, Archer attempts to find the location of a nasty biological weapon planted somewhere in Los Angeles. Pollux wonít spill the beans, so authorities offer an unorthodox solution. It turns out that the accident didnít kill Castor after all; he remains comatose but alive. Dr. Malcolm Walsh (Colm Feore) states that he can swap faces between Castor and Archer and allow the latter to perfectly impersonate the former.
Reluctantly, Archer agrees to do this, so he enters Erehwon Prison to cozy up to Pollux. After some missteps, this succeeds, but in the meantime, the real Castor snaps back to life. Understandably cheesed by the absence of his face, he forces Walsh to turn him into Archer. Castor then kills Walsh and all of Archerís cronies who know of the secret mission.
Firmly in place as Archer, Castor takes over his life. That means he fools Archerís wife Eve (Joan Allen) and sullen teen daughter Jamie (Dominique Swain). In Archerís guise, he stages many events that elevate his status in his agency and make him a new star. The real Archer, however, has to execute an escape from Erehwon so he can reclaim his old life and recapture the real Castor.
Movies often stretch what weíll accept from technology, but Face/Off pushes the limits to the extreme. However, even as absurd as the concept of face switching may sound, the film actually makes it almost sound plausible. After some brief moments of wariness, the topic becomes a non-issue quickly, and it never really distracts from the rest of the flick.
This happens because director John Woo pulls off such great action. He brings a terrific sense of style to the material and moves things at a brisk pace. Woo still allots enough time for character development to make the flick work, but the action makes it something special.
In addition, excellent performances help elevate what should have been a silly movie. Travolta and Cage manage to swap personalities but not parody the others. Travolta probably emulates Cage better than the other way around, but he does get the easier role. Castorís such a cartoonish figure that Travolta doesnít have to deal with the same level of nuance. Cage reins in his naturally extravagant tendencies to capture the anguished heart of Archer as well as the crude magnetism of Castor.
Not only do both leads do extremely well in dual roles, but also the supporting performers add depth to the piece. Allen helps anchor the flick with her accurate view of Eve, and Nivola turns a small and caricatured role into something quite memorable. He allows Pollux to be amusing and compelling far beyond the scope of the scripted character.
Parts of Face/Off really do seem cheesy, especially due to some artificial and stilted dialogue. However, the combination of elegant style and excellent performances make it a genuine winner. The movie also packs a much more substantial emotional punch than the average action film. I donít know if I can consider Face/Off to be a true classic, but it remains a terrific piece of work.