Heroic Bloodshed American Style: Notes on Face/Off at 25
A distressingly mustachioed Nicolas Cage looks down the sights of his rifle, magnifying one of his eyes. Cut to an iris shot where crosshairs are lined up with John Travolta's back. A finger pulls the trigger. A CGI bullet slow-mos towards the audience and fills the screen before exploding into Travolta's back. He falls off the merry-go-round he is riding with his son (right, I forgot to mention, Travolta is on a merry-go-round with his son while this is happening). The reveal of a smear of blood on the white fibreglass mane of the carousel horse scored by a warped, shrieking whinny. A grip of balloons floats away. Travolta army-crawls through the shock of being shot to cradle his dead son. The frame curdles into the opening credits of Se7en for a second. We are two minutes in. Believe me when I say that exactly 0% of my love for Face/Off is winking or ironic. It is an absurd and sublime piece of action filmmaking emblematic of everything missing from contemporary Hollywood fare. It is unafraid to be cheesy and bombastic and thus unafraid to be fucking sick as hell. We didn't know how good we had it.
At this point, it was fair to assume most moviegoing American were familiar with John Woo. Prior to 1997, Woo was a favourite of action movie sickos and assorted Hong Kong film enthusiasts on the strength of several hyper-stylized, hyper-violent crime movies. The key text is the pivot point of this story: 1989's Hard Boiled, a masterclass in controlled cinematic chaos and one of the best action movies of the 1980s, period. It has a brilliant one-take shot in its climax and baby piss plays a key role in its denouement; seek this out and watch it at as soon as is convenient, I beseech you.
But by the time Face/Off dropped, Woo was already two pictures deep into what would be a decade-long American detour. The 1993 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target (a cartoon Cajun Most Dangerous Game riff) was a modest hit, and the Travolta/Christian Slater team-up Broken Arrow (Travolta steals a nuke and the cast of Pump Up the Volume tries to get it back) was a bigger, but still modest, hit. I like Hard Target way more than I possibly should, and Broken Arrow is fine, and while some of the John Woo magic is there, there's still something bridled about them. Some of it is star ego, some of it the Hollywood curse of being noted to death, and some of it is (entirely unwarranted) distrust of Woo as an outsider. Now, this is an absurd thing to say about a movie where this happens, but that is part of the majesty of Face/Off: it is a movie that doesn't just exist in the red, it lives and breathes there. Excess is its oxygen. It's too big and too brash to be tempered in any significant way. The only people making American blockbusters like this right now are the Wachowskis and no one wants to give them any fucking money.
Face/Off is a movie that dares to start with an action setpiece so electric, a setpiece where a fucking private jet crashing into a hangar full of oil drums and fireworks merely signals halftime, that it would be a fitting climax to most movies. Face/Off is not most movies. Most movies don't have grace notes like tanker trucks on fire. Why is there a choir at the Los Angeles Convention Center singing Handel's Messiah? Why does the black site max-security prison have a magnetic floor? Why the Chiclets? We are in the realm of heightened reality here. The stakes are heightened. The imagery is heightened. The emotions are heightened. And no one is more up to the task of filtering all these excesses into their performance than Nicolas Cage. Cage always commits. Like Woo, he is unburdened by the limits of what should happen. To see Cage as Sean Archer as Castor Troy during the fight in the prison cafeteria is to watch a circus performer navigate a tightrope on rollerskates while juggling. This specific acting challenge, performing as a fellow actor portraying a character playing yourself portraying a different character, is a mesmerizing feat to behold. Travolta is no slouch, but the illusion isn't perfect. Cage and Travolta both have twitchy performances here, but Cage can never rid himself of the mania of his style, while Travolta is always more pinched and high-strung. Still, it's a delight to see these two A-list actors tuck into this rich a meal. Every character actor you like is in this, from the Zodiac Killer to Bunny from The Wire to Claudette from The Shield to the square Anglo detective from Bon Cop Bad Cop. Gina Gershon is in this! I mean, hell yes.
“Style over substance” is a bogus way of interpreting art. What is “substantive?” The plot? Hell no. There are like seven plots. This is a boilerplate Good Guys/Bad Guys story, or as Travolta-as-Cage-as-Troy says, “The eternal battle between good and evil, saint and sinners... but you are still not having fun.” The style is the fun, it's what I immediately glom onto when I watch it. This is the substance, these are the nourishing parts, this is what is lacking when I survey the contemporary tentpole landscape. It's difficult for me to imagine someone watching Face/Off or any of its brethren and them not feeling any sense of glee. There's something Romantic about the excesses of this particular strain of filmmaking, about its explosion of cliché and imagery. What is substance without style? Oatmeal. Pablum. Chicken feed. The reticence you might be feeling about these operatic more-is-more opuses might be some vestigial form of irony poisoning. You are not too good for stuff like this, because everyone should feel glee at the movies. I reiterate: My love for Face/Off, its excesses and its cartoonish explosions of action-film cliché, are 100% sincere.