A Piece of the Action.
One day, waaaay back in late summer or fall of 1996 (I can’t remember exactly when), a friend and I played a bit of ‘scheduled hooky’ from work and enjoyed what would now be called a ‘mental health day’ for both of us. One of the things on our unscheduled itinerary was to hit Los Angeles Harbor, aka Ports o’ Call, in San Pedro. The port has harbor tours that take tourists out to see the large draw bridge, as well as the huge shipping cranes, sailboats and commercial ships. Sounded fun. We took the tour. Along the tour, we saw a pair of speedboats off in the distance, being chased by what appeared to be a police boat and several camera boats. I remembered the tour guide saying he thought they might have been filming “Baywatch.” We saw a pair of stuntmen in black suits duking it out on the decks of the speedboats, only to finish, and then repeat those moves as the boats went back to their starting positions. At any rate, it was interesting to see something being filmed right in front of us, especially something as complex as a water shoot.
At the time, I filed the scene away under “miscellaneous cool stuff” in my brain, and all but forgot about it. There were no pocket digital cameras, let alone smartphones in those days (otherwise, I would’ve Instagrammed the shit out of it). One night, almost a year later, I walked to the local theater near my apartment to see the hit summer movie “Face/Off” (1997). More than halfway into this wildly over-the-top movie, my attention was piqued when I recognized a familiar pair of onscreen boats chasing each other through San Pedro harbor—this was the very scene I’d watched being filmed less than a year earlier. Anyway, that was my little “Forrest Gump” moment with this John Woo action flick.
Now, let’s take a deeper look into director John (“Broken Arrow”) Woo’s audacious actioner…
*******SPEEDBOAT-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!*******
The movie opens six years earlier, when FBI anti-terrorist agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) is taking his beloved young son Michael (Myles Jeffrey) out for an idyllic, soft-focus, color-desaturated day at a carnival. On a carousel, we see Archer do this weird, fingers-over-the-face thing with his kid (apparently it’s a real tick of Travolta’s). Events turn tragic when a porn ‘stache assassin named Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) sets his rifle scope on his longtime nemesis Archer. Castor is a renowned international terrorist and Archer is getting too hot on his tail, so he decides to kill him. The bullet passes through Archer, but fatally wounds his son. Six years later, Sean Archer is now a man obsessed with bringing his son’s killer to justice. His physician wife Eve (Joan Allen) and bratty teenage daughter Jamie (Dominique Swain) are all feeling the void left in their lives by Michael’s death, as the wound is still wide open.
Note: In light of the loss of Travolta’s real-life teenage son Jett in 2009, this feels like an eerie and downright uncomfortable bit of foreshadowing. Travolta has faced other tragedies; he also lost his wife, actress Kelly Preston, after a long battle with cancer. Those of us with long memories also remember Travolta losing his lover, actress Diana Hyland, back in 1977. Hyland had played Travolta’s mother–eww!–in the 1976 TV-movie, “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.”
We next see Castor Troy, dressed in a priest’s cassock, setting a high-tech bomb at the L.A Convention Center. The bomb is set to go off on the 18th of whatever the hell month it’s supposed to be. Afterward, he brazenly rocks out to a choir performing Handel’s Messiah, before wildly groping the butt of a young girl in the choir (there are about thirty or forty other witnesses watching this ‘priest”s creepy behavior–not one of them says a damn thing).
Note: This ‘master terrorist’ Castor Troy’s over-the-top behavior would no doubt set off a chorus of alarms and a sea of red flags in anything approaching the real world, so right away, we’re asked to pretend that a creepy, dancing priest groping a young choir girl in full view of everyone is totally okay and normal somehow. The universe of “Face/Off” is a heightened, action-movie rules universe—the kind parodied so brilliantly in the underrated 1993 action-comedy, “The Last Action Hero.” In “Face/Off”, we are meant to take this over-the-top universe seriously.
Acting on a tip relayed from his FBI partner Tito (Robert Wisdom), Archer learns that Castor Troy’s brother Pollux (Allesandro Nivola) has chartered a private plane–a plane with one of Archer’s FBI agents aboard posing as a flight attendant. Arriving late at the airport, we see Castor showing affection for his intelligent but socially inept kid brother, whose unlaced shoes he ties out of brotherly obligation. Archer mobilizes his team to descend on the airport, and they catch the plane just as it is powering up for takeoff. Archer and Tito play chicken with the plane in their Hummer, until Archer is forced to swerve. Archer then boards a nearby helicopter (sans Tito) and tries to cripple the plane’s wings. In retaliation, Castor shoots the undercover agent and tosses the woman’s corpse out of the cabin door, and shoots the pilot as well. Archer’s helicopter cripples the plane’s ailerons, preventing it from achieving liftoff and forcing it to crash into a nearby hangar.
Note: Okay, seriously, movie—Archer’s partner and friend is one of the few black characters in the movie, and he’s named “Tito”? Tito Jackson is, of course, the onetime member of “The Jackson Five” pop group, and a brother of the late pop solo legend, Michael Jackson. Forgive me, but naming the only high profile black character in the movie “Tito” just reeks of tone deaf white screenwriters.
Archer’s agents spread out in the hangar and attempt to surround Castor Troy. After a near comical series of prolonged shootouts that never hit anyone, Archer finally pins Castor down and is ready to take him in only after Castor’s gun misfires. With Castor momentarily unarmed, Sean doesn’t shoot him when he has the chance–not even once in the foot to slow him down. After lots of mugging and overacting between the two adversaries, Castor is finally stopped when a convenient nearby jet turbine engine is activated—the force of which slams Castor into a wall, rendering him comatose. Castor’s younger brother Pollux is taken into custody as well. The Troy Bros Crime Syndicate would seem to be broken up for good…
Note: The multiple shootouts in the film are its least interesting moments, as their outcomes are extremely predictable; characters in the movie routinely outrun machine gunfire and explosions. Even when shot or stabbed, they never seem in imminent danger of bleeding out, let alone getting nasty infections. Once again, this is a hyper-stylized action universe.
Also of Note: The names of the Troy brothers, “Castor” and “Pollux” are named after the famed twin brothers in Greek mythology; both born under Leda, but with different fathers. Castor’s father was the king of Sparta, while Pollux was born of no less than Zeus himself. The brothers are now represented in the nighttime sky within the zodiacal constellation of “Gemini,” the twins. The name of their nemesis “Archer” could be a reference to Gemini’s opposite constellation, that of the centaur archer seen in Sagittarius. In a bit of unrelated mythology, Archer’s wife is named “Eve,” and their later adopted son is named “Adam.”
With the comatose Castor in custody, an exhausted Archer comes home, where he has to deal with his bratty emo daughter’s shenanigans. Once Jamie clears the room, Archer quietly tells his wife that he nabbed their son’s killer. Eve hopes this will bring closure to their broken family, as Archer promises her that he won’t take any more high-risk assignments now that Castor’s in custody. Yeah, riiiiiiiight…
Note: It’s hard to imagine a universe where an FBI antiterrorism agent as clearly and completely compromised as Sean Archer would be allowed to freely hunt for his young son’s killer with carte blanche. Archer’s total lack of objectivity would no doubt be called into question by defense counsel if Castor ever went to trial for his crimes. Again, one must accept that this is a universe where real world-law and painfully slow justice don’t seem to apply. Actor John Travolta previously worked for director John Woo in 1995’s “Broken Arrow”; if you ever catch that movie, Travolta basically plays the Castor Troy-version of himself he plays later in this film.
A sullen Archer returns to the FBI office in Los Angeles, and is hailed as a conquering hero. His colleagues, including an agent named Wanda (comedian Margaret Cho), spontaneously applaud, but Archer eschews the adulation. Champagne is delivered, by the CIA no less, but Archer insists that he and his staff drink only to the memory of their fallen colleagues who died in the line of duty to stop the dangerous terrorist, Castor Troy. Retreating into his office for solitude, Archer closes the computer file on his son’s killer.
Note: Margaret Cho is a gifted comedian, whose attempts to branch out into TV sitcoms (“All-American Girl”) and movies were, unfortunately, less successful than her brilliant standup career. In her standup, she often talks about her typecasting in more stereotypical roles, where she was often expected to speak in something closer to her Korean-born mother’s accent. Cho is one of the few diverse faces in the movie’s otherwise largely caucasian ensemble cast, and sadly, her role is largely inconsequential.
Before he was rendered comatose, Castor told Archer of a bomb that was due to go off in L.A. shortly, but he was knocked out cold before he could offer details. Pollux Troy is interrogated, but to no avail. Other associates of Castor’s are brought in as well, including his drug-dealing partner Dietrich (Nick Cassavetes), and Dietrich’s sister Sasha (Gina Gershon), an on-again/off-again lover of Castor’s. Both know nothing about the bomb, only that it was set to go off “on the 18th” (which is vaguely suggested as a matter of days). After threatening to take away Sasha’s young son and beating the tar out of a wise-ass Dietrich, Archer gets nowhere. With the clock ticking and none of Castor’s crew talking, Archer’s team hits a dead-end.
Note: The ‘enhanced interrogation’ (i.e. torture) techniques used in the film take an especially unflattering light today, especially after the images of tortured inmates from Guantanamo Bay were leaked to the press in the mid-2000s. It’s also a bit odd that Sasha, clearly an unfit mother, was allowed to keep her son after the interrogation. As we see later in the film, Sasha’s ‘lifestyle’ (hanging out with drug dealers and terrorists) was already a direct threat to the boy’s well being. No one in the FBI called Child Protective Services?
A deeply stressed and frustrated Archer is given another option by Agent Hollis Miller (CCH Pounder), who suggests that Archer could get Pollux to talk if he could make him believe he was Castor. Miller introduces Archer to a revolutionary plastic surgeon named Walsh (Colm Feore), who proposes Archer temporarily ‘borrows’ the face of the comatose Castor. Other modifications would be made as well, including strategic liposuction, hair plugs, etc. Even Archer’s voice could be changed to sound like Castor’s, using a microchip attached to his larynx. This would be a Black Op; completely off the books—even Archer’s boss, Victor Lazarro (Harve Presnell) wouldn’t be in on it. Archer is adamant; he won’t do it, it’s crazy, he promised his wife no more dangerous ops, yada, yada, yada. But he is reminded of the ticking clock, and he reluctantly agrees. He returns home to Eve and tells her he’s off to a training exercise in Georgia, directly breaking his promise to take a desk job. She’s less-than-thrilled, of course, and Archer leaves…
Note: Since the release of the movie, numerous successful face transplants have been made in the US and Europe, but they’ve had nowhere near the successes as the ones seen in the film. The movie’s ‘science’ glosses over many fine points beyond hair plugs and fatty tissue. For example, Dr. Walsh also makes absolutely zero mention of any anti-rejection drugs that would be needed for Archer to accept the living skin of a ‘donor’ with an incompatible blood type. Walsh makes a perfunctory mention of ‘new anti-inflammatories’ that significantly reduce post-surgical swelling, but that’s about it. Organ donation is very tricky, including skin (which is an organ, too); matches have to be very close for a transplant to take, even for a relatively short while. The medical ‘science’ seen in the movie is less 1990s and more Star Trek in its utter implausibility.
The surgery is completed, and Archer’s real face is kept floating in a jar of preserving fluid. The still-comatose Castor lies in a hospital bed; his bloodied, faceless head wrapped in a thick shroud of bandages. After a lapse of stage time, we see Archer’s bandages come off, and he’s now wearing the face (and slimmed down body) of Castor Troy–his longtime nemesis and the murderer of his son. Naturally Archer freaks out, smashing a mirror and screaming “f–k you” to anyone within earshot. Only his partner Tito is able to bring him down by reminding him that he is not Castor Troy–he is Sean Archer. Once tranked, Archer notices that his voice still doesn’t sound like Castor’s, and Dr. Walsh administers the final step of the transformation by activating the larynx chip. After some fine-tuning, Archer’s voice is now a 100% match for Castor’s (never mind their slightly different regional accents…).
Note: It’s also never fully explained just how the middle-aged, slightly paunchy Archer’s entire body, including fingers and other body parts, could be slimmed down to match the younger Castor’s as well. What about more, um, intimate body parts? Were those an exact match beforehand? We see many shots of scars being removed with lasers, but do these magical lasers somehow reconfigure other body parts as well…?
The plan, if it can be called one, is to slip Archer (as Castor) into a mysterious prison reserved for inmates who have zero hope of seeing freedom, let alone any semblance of prisoner’s rights. Once there, Archer will trick the paranoid Pollux to give him the exact location of the bomb. After that, Archer will have the surgical procedure reversed, and everything should be copacetic. Arriving at the prison, Archer is given standard-issue magnetic boots, which can be activated to keep the prisoner locked to the floor in the event of a riot or attempted escape. Most of the prisoners immediately Archer as Castor, and some, including a Russian “yeti” named Dubov (Chris Bauer) have old scores to settle with the infamous terrorist. Archer is forced by circumstance to throw himself into the role of Castor, gleefully kicking the shit out of his would-be attackers (between cries of anguish), while winning cred with his fellow inmates. The disguised FBI agent also gets an up-close and personal look into the horrific conditions of his fellow inmates, who are routinely tortured, electrocuted, and encouraged to fight each other as sadistic guards (including “Fargo” actor John Carroll Lynch) stand by, idly enjoying the entertainment. With his alpha male dominance in the joint more or less established, Archer makes contact with his “bro”, Pollux.
Note: “Face/Off” attempts to make a statement about the horrific abuses inmates face in prison, and it is implied that Archer gains new empathy for the people he’s sent away to such hellholes, but there’s no real resolution. Such commentary is paid lip service, and nothing more. After all, this is an action movie, not “Dead Man Walking.”
Back at the Walsh Institute, the comatose Castor awakens. With no guard placed near his door, and no restraints on his bed, the faceless terrorist removes his bandages and feels bloody muscle where his face used to be. Looking out to a window to an adjacent lab, he sees the floating, disembodied face of Sean Archer in a canister of preservative fluid. Somehow, Castor is allowed to make a phone call to members of his gang (where the hell is hospital security??) and arrange for them to kidnap a terrified Dr. Walsh. With his staff held at gunpoint, Walsh is forced to transform the bloodied, faceless Castor Troy into Sean Archer.
Note: Have you ever tried making a non-cellphone call from a hospital as a patient? Not nearly as easy as it’s made to seem in the movie. There is a total lack of security presence in this hospital. I mean, a world-class terrorist is being held without so much as bindings on his wrists and ankles (!). Did no one even remotely imagine the possibility of this dangerous prisoner awakening from his coma? Even though Dr. Walsh is forced to perform the Castor-into-Archer surgery at gunpoint, was there no way at all for the doctor to have arranged a fatal surgical ‘accident’ while Castor was under anesthetic? And did he have to make Castor such a perfect facsimile of Archer? Couldn’t he have fudged a few very important intimate details that might’ve caused his physician wife to suspect something was amiss, and alert the authorities…?
Back at the prison, Archer-as-Castor meets with Pollux and tries to explain to his paranoid “brother” that his disoriented behavior is the result of shock treatments. Not entirely convinced, Pollux randomly quizzes Archer-as-Castor about his medication, but luckily Sean has done his homework and gives the correct response. Complimenting Pollux on the creation of the bomb, Archer lays on the flattery by telling Pollux that it belongs in the Louvre. This gives Pollux an opportunity to slip up, and he does, when he says, “Oh well, I guess the L.A Convention Center will have to do.” Archer-as-Castor smiles broadly, getting the information he needed, and then ‘thanks’ his Pollux, whom he calls “pathetic” and leaves. An alarmed Pollux realizes he’s been tricked…
Notes: Allesandro Nivola gives an interesting performance as Pollux, whose introverted, withdrawn demeanor is in stark contrast to the somewhat broader style of acting hammily delivered by Nicolas Cage and John Travolta.
Now that he knows the bomb’s location, Archer-as-Castor is told he has a visitor. Assuming it to be a member of his own FBI team, Archer is startled by the sight of his former face, staring back at him. Dressed in Archer’s clothes (and given some of his girth), Castor-as-Archer greets Archer by squealing “Woooweee, you’re good lookin’! You’re hot!” before licking Archer’s borrowed face (again, no one seems to notice this…?). With Archer’s magnetic boots locked to the floor, Castor shows him his own wedding ring (“See anything you like?”) and tells the ‘prisoner’ that all evidence of the medical procedure was destroyed when his crew burned the Walsh Institute to the ground. The fire also killed everyone connected with the Black Op, including Tito and Dr. Walsh. As far as the outside world is concerned, Castor is Sean Archer, and the real Archer will rot the rest of his life behind bars in the off-the-books prison. The masquerading terrorist then tells his helpless nemesis he’s off to defuse the bomb, which will make him a national hero. Castor also mentions that he’ll f–k Archer’s lonely wife. That last comment sends the true Archer into a rage, and the guards separate the two…
Note: Travolta and Cage are all-teeth and wild-eyes in their sometimes cartoonish acting styles, but such broadness works for this movie, which already has an extreme degree of unreality to it. The actors’ wide smiles, broad gesturing and extreme mugging are all being used to sell what is, in effect, a possession story; much in the same way that extreme makeup and Mercedes McCambridge’s croaking, raspy voice were used to make us believe that young Linda Blair was inhabited by a demon in “The Exorcist” (1973).
Castor-as-Archer then goes “home” to Archer’s suburban cookie-cutter house by the beach, almost driving past it, until he spots the tall, slender Eve getting ready to leave for work. She chastises him for almost driving past ‘their’ house, but he tries to smooth her over with flattery and kisses. Eve is suspicious, but has to go. Once inside the house, Castor overhears Jamie talking on the phone with a friend. James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” plays on the soundtrack, as Castor sleazily assesses Archer’s teenage daughter, who is clad only in panties and a t-shirt. Believing Castor to be her dad, Jamie is startled when he reaches for one of the cigarettes on her dresser. Immediately assuming she’s in trouble, she’s taken aback when ‘dad’ takes a drag, and promises not to “tell mom.” This new ‘cooler’ version of dad has Jamie very confused…
Note: Actress Dominique Swain, who plays Jamie, was only about 16 years old or so when the movie was made, and the shots of her lying in bed in her panties feel super-inappropriate today (as they did in 1997). Not surprisingly, Swain would also star in a 1997 cable-TV remake of the disturbing May-December drama “Lolita,” based on the classic novel by Vladimir Nabokov. The book was first adapted by director Stanley Kubrick in the classic 1962 film starring James Mason and Sue Lyon. That Swain was peddled as a sex object at such a young age feels even worse today in the post-MeToo/Harvey Weinstein era.
With hours to go until the bomb at the L.A. Convention Center is set to detonate, Castor-as-Archer clears the bomb squad from the site and dances a victory jig before he gleefully enters his original passcode with which he used to set the bomb. The bomb is stopped, and Castor-as-Archer is hailed as a national hero. Unlike the real Archer, Castor basks in the applause of his colleagues at the office, and loves his hero’s welcome. Given even broader authority to his antiterrorism team by the President himself, Castor directly challenges the authority of Archer’s older boss and mentor, Victor Lazarro, who is completely unaware that Archer isn’t who he appears. Castor also manages to get his brother Pollux released from prison, for “turning state’s evidence.” Appearing at a press conference, which is also broadcast on multiple TV screens to the prison, Castor-as-Archer stares directly into the camera and gleefully taunts the real Archer. Realizing he needs to escape to save his family, Archer-as-Castor challenges a prison guard for a cigarette, which, in reality, is nothing more than a ruse to grab the tiny remote control used to lock the magnetic boots. As Archer is beaten within an inch of his life, the prisoners applaud his boldness for stealing a cigarette, unaware of his real purpose…
Note: Both actors take turns playing hero and villain, though John Travolta’s mimicry of Nicolas Cage’s earlier performance as Castor feels a bit more comedic. At times, it’s very easy to reimagine “Face/Off” played entirely for laughs with just a bit of re-editing.
Archer-as-Castor is due to receive electroshock therapy for fighting with the guard, so he decides it’s time to ally himself with former foe Dubov and stage an all-out prison break. Using his stolen remote, he deactivates the magnetic boots, and tells Dubov that they need to escape right now. The burly Russian then beats the crap out of his former tormentors, as Archer deactivates the magnetic field to the inhumane prison. Soon, the liberated convicts are getting just revenge on their captors, as Archer uses the melee to escape. Reaching the rooftop, he opens the door–momentarily blinded by daylight–before realizing that the prison is actually located in an abandoned offshore oil rig off the Pacific coast. With a security helicopter swirling around the upper deck, Archer evades machine gun fire (as everyone does in this movie) and makes a dive into the Pacific. The helicopter crew just assumes he died on impact and splits, with absolutely zero followup.
Note: While I appreciate the production value of staging the prison’s exterior at a real-life California offshore oil rig, Archer’s escape is problematic for many reasons. First off, those offshore oil rigs are a lot further out than they look from the shore. Archer would likely be killed from multiple shark bites (we have many great white sharks off the California coast), jellyfish stings, sheer exhaustion (despite his surgeries, he’s still a middle-aged man), or, most likely, severe hypothermia from the intensely cold Pacific waters. Considering the piss poor success rate for escaping Alcatraz (Alcatraz is even closer to San Francisco than offshore oil rigs are to SoCal beaches), there is simply no way an unprotected, unprepared Archer would’ve made it to shore. I might’ve bought it even if they just inserted a quick shot of Archer getting picked up later by a passing fishing boat, or something–anything.
News of Archer-as-Castor’s escape from maximum security (might want to rethink that branding) soon reaches Castor-as-Archer in his assumed FBI office. While his colleagues assume he must’ve died in the escape attempt, Castor-as-Archer tells them, “You must trust me…he’s already here.” Meanwhile, the washed ashore Archer-as-Castor steals a car, and uses its phone to try and warn his wife about the imposter in their bedroom. She hangs up, not recognizing Archer’s Castor-ized voice. With nowhere else to go, the escapee heads to the luxurious loft of Castor ally, Dietrich, who lives there with his sister Sasha, and whatever random drug addict might be partaking in Dietrich’s services at any given time. Welcoming Archer-as-Castor into his home, Dietrich gets his ‘friend’ some of his former belongings; including fresh clothes and a box containing his gold-plated pistols, a few joints, a pack of Tic-Tacs and some acid. The two of them get very stoned together, and upstanding FBI agent Archer begins to mellow out in the home of his ‘enemies’. When asked what he plans to do with “Archer” when he catches him, Archer-as-Castor says he wants to take his face…off. Cue movie title.
Note: Archer’s finding solace and comfort in Dietrich’s den of scumbags is actually one of the more interesting scenes in the film, as we feel the former FBI agent and family man’s identity beginning to slip. This experience gives Archer a valuable opportunity to live a day in the shoes of his enemies.
Settling into the suburbs, Castor-as-Archer is back home when he hears Jamie returning home in the driveway with her date, Karl (Danny Masterson, of “ALIEN: Covenant”), in his shiny red Corvette. Hearing noises, ‘daddy’ Castor goes outside to investigate and sees Karl trying to have his way with Jamie. Smashing the driver’s window (barehanded…sure), Castor drags Karl out and beats the hell out of the boy, forcing him to apologize. Without further ado, Karl splits. Jamie is left both stunned and terrified by her ‘dad.’ The two of them enjoy a smoke together, and Castor offers his ‘daughter’ a quick lesson in self-defense by giving her one of his own switchblades. He tells his Jamie that if she’s ever attacked again? Stab her would-be rapist in the thigh and twist the blade, so the wound can’t close. Brutal, but effective…
Note: Would-be date rapist Karl is played by Danny Masterson (“That ’70s Show,” “ALIEN: Covenant”). In another bit of unintended foreshadowing, Masterson himself was recently indicted on multiple rape charges, to which he’s pleaded not-guilty. Masterson is currently awaiting trial.
Back at Dietrich’s lair, a not-quite-sober Archer-as-Castor is awakened by Castor’s lover, Sasha. She introduces him to six year-old Adam (David McCurley), the son she had with Castor. The boy looks very much like Archer’s late son Michael, and Archer, still in the grip of an identity crisis, lovingly hugs the boy. Things turn a bit twisted, however, when Archer begins to repeatedly shout Michael’s name as he’s embracing Adam. Sasha pulls her son away from his ‘confused dad,’ whose odd behavior is beginning to scare the boy. Meanwhile, the family reunion is being spied upon by Pollux, who immediately informs Castor-as-Archer that his old nemesis is getting very comfortable in his new surroundings. Castor immediately mobilizes ‘his’ counterterrorism team for a raid on Dietrich’s loft…
Note: The curious juxtaposition of the two very different men becoming oddly acclimated to their new ‘homes’ is far more interesting than the endless shootouts, standoffs and fisticuffs. I could easily see the movie reimagined as a supernatural thriller, with Archer and Castor switching souls instead of body parts. The switch could happen via the occult, or perhaps an ancient cursed magic amulet in Castor’s possession (like “Child’s Play” or “Exorcist III”). To be honest, a supernatural soul-swapping is a lot easier for me to buy in a fantasy than the two men being transformed by a ridiculously implausible series of liposuction surgeries and impossibly fine skin-grafts.
The raid is a total shit storm, with Archer-as-Castor trying his best to get Sasha and Adam to safety, while also trying not to get shot by his own FBI agents (!). Placing a pair of thick earphones over Adam’s ears, Archer and Sasha do their best to insulate the child from the trauma of his current circumstances. With Sasha and the boy whisked away to temporary safety by Dietrich, who is fatally shot in the jugular, we once again see another standoff between Castor and Archer, with neither man actually killing the other, despite wasting a ton of ammunition between them. It’s a replay of their earlier scene at the airport hangar, but with the roles reversed. Fleeing across the roof to escape, Archer tosses Pollux into several layers of glass through the loft’s atrium. Pollux is really most sincerely dead by the time he crash-lands at the feet of Castor. Castor is grief stricken at the sight of his dead kid brother, and dutifully re-ties the young man’s shoes. An FBI agent walks in on the scene, and is confused at the apparent sight of FBI agent Archer crying over a dead terrorist suspect. Castor then shoots the inquisitive FBI agent (which he’ll no doubt dismiss as ‘friendly fire’ in the after-action report). Castor has killed Archer’s son, and Archer has killed Castor’s brother. Dietrich is killed in the raid as well, when he takes a bullet to the jugular after saving Adam’s life. The body count is rising…
Note: There is no way in hell that simply placing headphones over Adam’s ears would cancel out the barrage of automatic weapons’ gunfire that ensued during the FBI raid on Dietrich’s compound. That said, the scene of the teary-eyed Adam reaching out to his mother and ‘father’ as ammo whizzes by is a perfect example of the slow-motion ‘bullet ballet’ for which John Woo’s Hong Kong action movies (“A Better Tomorrow,” Parts 1 & 2) were so famous before he began making movies in the US. The shootout montage is juxtaposed with the serene voice of Olivia Newton John performing a cover of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” from “The Wizard Of Oz.”
After the raid on the late Dietrich’s drug den makes national news, FBI boss Lazarro calls Castor-as-Archer into his office for a dressing down of his “gestapo tactics.” The old man is struggling with chest pains, as he’s clearly not well. Castor closes the blinds, and tells the old man that he “has a confession to make,” and that he won’t like it—he’s Castor Troy. Quickly cupping the old man’s mouth, depriving him of much-needed air, and then punching him hard in the chest, Castor hastens the dying Lazarro’s departure. Calling Lazarro’s secretary, Castor feigns shock when he tells her that “Victor Lazarro just had a heart attack.”
Note: Very convenient timing for Lazarro’s heart attack. Might’ve worked a little more convincingly if we saw earlier indications that the old man had a failing ticker before that scene.
Surviving the raid on the compound, a bleeding Archer-as-Castor manages to get past the armed guards at the Archer home in order to see Eve and do his best to explain his true identity. He also wants a photo of their late son, Michael. Begging her not to scream at the sight of his face, Archer tells her all about the Black Op mission, and how Castor Troy destroyed the Walsh clinic, along with all evidence of his transformation. With a shocked Eve still not entirely convinced, Archer tells her the story of their first date—a piece of shared personal information between them that Castor Troy could not possibly know. Before leaving their house, Archer tells Eve to draw some blood from her ‘husband’, reminding her that he is type O and that Castor Troy is AB negative. Later that night, she carefully takes a blood sample from the sleeping Castor and rushes it to her hospital’s lab. The blood is AB negative. Eve is convinced—the man sleeping in her bed isn’t Sean. The real Sean is standing next to her at the hospital, incredulously wearing the face of the man who killed their son. Before the wanted-Archer flees the hospital, Eve tells him that Castor-as-Archer will be attending the memorial service for Victor Lazarro the following morning, and that it may be their only opportunity to stop him. Meanwhile, she is going to the FBI with this newfound medical proof to back up her claim.
Note: Another one of the best scenes in the movie is of Nicolas Cage desperately trying to convince the understandably skeptical Joan Allen that he is her husband. The tearful, heartfelt story of their first date is beautifully acted by Cage, and reacted by Allen, as we see her guarded layers slowly giving way. I would’ve preferred many more scenes like this instead of the countless, pointless shootouts and ‘bullet ballet’ montages that pad out the movie’s unnecessarily long running time to two hours and twenty minutes.
The following morning, at Victor Lizarro’s Catholic memorial service, Archer-as-Castor relays a photo of Michael to the imposter at his wife’s side. Aware that his nemesis is onto him, Castor-as-Archer grimaces and crushes the photo before Eve can see it. After the attendees and pallbearers clear the church with the flag-draped casket of Lazarro, Archer and Castor once again confront each other, each with their respective sets of allies to back them up. The shootout goes beyond the walls of the church, and into the seaside venue outside. Sasha is fatally wounded in the shootout, but not before asking Archer-as-Castor to “take care of our baby.” Archer promises to look after Adam for her. Archer’s daughter Jamie is kidnapped by Castor’s thugs and brought to the funeral against her will, where the terrified girl is licked across the face by her “father”, whom she stabs in the thigh, per Castor’s ‘fatherly advice.’ Jamie and her mother use the moment to escape, with Eve making an urgent call to the FBI…
Note: Jamie is going to need a ton of therapy when this is all over…
Stealing a pair of very convenient speedboats docked at the marina, Archer goes off in pursuit of Castor, as the two boats collide and futilely spray each other with random gunfire. Ditching his own craft and letting it crash, Archer boards Castor’s boat, and it eventually collides with L.A. Harbor, where they are both thrown clear from the boat as it explodes into an orange fireball. Stranded on the muddy shores of the harbor, their battle continues, as Archer grabs a speargun and shoots his imposter through the abdomen. Even near-death Castor won’t shut up, as he mindlessly mumbles the Jon Powell song “Ready For The Big Ride” with his dying breaths. An ambulance arrives for both men, and backup FBI agents are on the scene as well. One of the G-men asks Archer-as-Castor, “Are you okay, Agent Archer?” and an exhausted Archer looks up in gratitude at hearing his own name addressed to him once again. Eve’s call got through.
Note: The speedboat chase was, of course, the scene my friend and I personally witnessed being filmed back in 1996, as detailed in the opening paragraphs of this column.
In the ambulance, a weary Archer-as-Castor looks over at his unconscious opponent and pulls the wedding ring off of the man’s left ring finger and places it back on his own, where it belongs. Eve tells her husband that the FBI is sending the best surgical teams in DC, who will do everything they can to give Archer his own face back…
Note: Castor’s hands are much slimmer than Archer’s, and that would be very difficult to fake, even with strategic liposuction–and certainly not with 1990s liposuction technology. Eve reassures Archer that DC is sending its best surgical teams, but wasn’t the late Dr. Walsh the pioneer of this particular surgical technology…? This is yet one more reason why I wished the movie had simply used some kind of supernatural explanation for their transference instead of a ridiculously convoluted medical one.
The final scene is the mega-happy ending, where the surgically restored Sean Archer is returned to his family (wonder why they weren’t waiting to take him home from the hospital…). Daughter Jamie is over her goth/punk phase, and Eve is asked if it’s okay for Sean to bring someone home to live with them. In walks young Adam, who is now in the care of the Archer family, who, like their dad, have an annoying habit of running their fingers over each others’ faces…
Note: When poor Adam grows up, he’s going to have a lot of questions about what happened to his real dad, and I have a feeling he might not be too thrilled to learn the answers…
Summing It Up.
Director John Woo (“A Better Tomorrow”), along with writers Mike Werb and Michael Collary (“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”), have crafted a guns-blazing fantasy with all the ‘realism’ of “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “Scooby Doo,” yet it works. The movie casts a bizarre spell over its audience, that, like hypnosis, only works if the viewer allows it. The action is audacious, the medical ‘science’ is preposterous, and the acting is absolutely insane. However, if near-total suspension of disbelief is applied? One might actually find themselves enjoying this wildly over-the-top, sci-fi/crime-melodrama. A time capsule movie of 1990s action movie excesses, it’s as if the movie is set in the “Jack Slater” universe of “The Last Action Hero” (1993). Despite the film’s bombastic violence, its inherent lack of realism keeps most of it from worming too deeply into a viewer’s consciousness.
“Face/Off” takes tropes from Woo’s own Hong Kong filmography (slow motion gunplay, pigeons, religious iconography, etc) and lets them stew in Americana sauce. Actors Nicolas Cage and John Travolta, playing other’s characters, keep their performances dialed up to eleven at all times (even when they’re playing the hero, Sean Archer). Subtlety is nonexistent in this movie. However, the two actors take such wicked joy in playing these caricatures of each other that it trickles down to the audience.
“Face/Off” is an audaciously ridiculous premise grafted onto exhausting action set pieces, yet it somehow manages to come together in a slick, absurdly entertaining package.
“Face/Off” can be viewed on Amazon Prime Video and YouTube Premium for streaming rental or purchase (prices vary); the film is also available for purchase on DVD and Blu Ray as well. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are around 607,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, vaccines are widely available and inoculations are widespread, though a certain level of vaccine hesitancy (roughly 40% of the US population) is slowing herd immunity and giving the virus room to fester and mutate. The overwhelming majority of COVID-related deaths in the United States are with unvaccinated persons. Even fully vaccinated, it’s still be possible to catch the coronavirus (and its variants), though a fully vaccinated person’s chances of getting seriously ill are slim. So, if you haven’t already done so, please get vaccinated as soon as possible and let us immunize our way out of the COVID pandemic.