It’s hard to decide who’s the worse villain: John Travolta or Nicolas Cage. And that’s exactly why Face/Off is the perfect mid-90s action thriller. Who do you root for? Unclear because the main characters switched faces, and it’s hard to tell who the good guy is. The effect is intoxicating.
Face/Off is a John Woo-directed pulp action thriller, a movie about a psychotic criminal and a too-committed cop: Cage and Travolta, respectively. Cage plays ruthless criminal Castor Troy, and Travolta plays heroic FBI agent Sean Archer. At least, until they switch faces.
Cage has killed Travolta’s son. Then, Travolta fails to kill Cage, but manages to get a face transplant so that he can assume Cage’s identity. And then, Cage wakes up from a coma, forces a doctor to transplant Travolta’s face on his head, and moves into Travolta’s house to fuck things up. This is obviously a complicated situation. Travolta goes to jail and gets his ass kicked a bunch. Cage’s nerdy brother has all kinds of trouble figuring out who to trust. And Travolta’s wife is put in a terribly awkward situation, since she thinks that this man with her husband’s face is her husband when he’s really her husband’s worst enemy. It’s a real wild ride.
The first time I saw Face/Off, I was a stupid teenager, so the basic plot points were enough to occupy my brain. The movie seemed exciting and unspeakably weird, based on the fact that Travolta and Cage switch faces less than an hour into it. But in retrospect, Face/Off is a movie that sums up an era. America was optimistic about technology and in the midst of a short-lived peacetime. Writers had to get extra creative about action movies. (Remember, this was the era of Demolition Man.)
What I didn’t realize in 1997, when the movie hit theaters, was the extent to which the face swap and the framing of terrorism was weirdly prescient. Two decades ago, Hollywood imagined terrorism as an open-ended plot engine, a handy way to name characters as villains and root a plot in a smarmy sludge of this-would-never-really-happen. (Picture the seemingly impossible plots of Con Air or The Rock for some Nic Cage-fueled reference points.) Making a movie’s hero swap faces with the villain seemed like a silly gimmick, but movies were brimming with silly gimmicks back then.
But the world is different now. Face transplants are a real thing. The lurking threat of terrorism is a real thing. It’s still pretty implausible that the FBI would put a criminal’s face onto an agent to infiltrate a ring of domestic terrorists. The notion that ruthless killers living double lives that have the capacity to blow up entire cities is hardly fanciful. This is a real thing, too.
All that said, Face/Off is still a thrill to watch. Not only did it make me feel nostalgic for the calm of the mid-90s; it also made me consider how far we’ve come since then, in good ways and bad. I like that Face/Off leaves you guessing. Face transplants are crazy, but are they also scary? (Hint: no.) Terrorism is definitely scary, but is it also ridiculous to think that some some psychopath would level Los Angeles? (Hint: no.) It’s refreshing to watch a cheesy action movie that seems somehow self-aware, even in its utter absurdity. It’s also startling to realize that Face/Off might not be as absurd as it once was.
Nearly 20 years later—and seen with a more experienced set of eyes—the Nic Cage masterpiece is even more exhilarating than it was the first time I saw it. Watching Face/Off feels like dusting off a precious vintage, twisting in the corkscrew, and popping the bottle. Even if it tastes like vinegar, the whole experience is a blast.
You should watch Face/Off again. Consider what crime seemed like in the mid- to late-90s and laugh at the bonkers idea of a criminal and a cop trading faces. It’s especially fun, because our reality is worse.
Sure, it’s amazing that face transplants exist. They’re also a transformative development. But the idea of a Nic Cage—a spliff-smoking, fast-talking, womanizing son of a bitch—seems rather quaint compared to the real threat of global terrorism. When the truth is scarier than fiction, escaping into the sweet embrace of a mid-90s action thriller like Face/Off isn’t a bad way to detach from reality for a few hours.