Face/Off unquestionably represents the one time that Hollywood really got out of the way of action maestro John Woo and allowed him to go for broke with a big-budget and play on an R-rated playground of his patented poetic ultra-violence. I saw this film twice during opening weekend back in the summer of 1997 (19 years ago!), and over the years, I’ve watched it so often that most of it has been committed to memory. The film contains two of the juiciest movie-star performances of all time between John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, both hamming it up exceedingly well, delivering sympathetic and villainous turns, sometimes in the same scene, while getting a chance to flex their action star muscles, which had been respectively set in motion with 1995’s Broken Arrow (also directed by Woo) and 1996’s The Rock, from then-rising star and future genre overlord Michael Bay. The exceedingly high-concept story from Mike Werb and Michael Colleary must’ve resulted in a big script sale, as this was the sort of non-franchise action movie that used to get made before everything started to take on a homogenized, PG-13 flavor. Travolta is Sean Archer, an FBI Agent hell-bent on capturing or killing the terrorist Castor Troy (Cage, who was given one of the best movie character names I can think of), who inadvertently killed his son.
The film’s gorgeous and dreamlike opening sequence, all crafted without one line of dialogue, perfectly sets up the story, which breathlessly leads into the film’s first action set-piece, and then from there, the movie is like a rip-cord of over the top ideas and sequences, all done with zero CGI, featuring larger than life stunt men and women who were doing things that could have easily gotten them killed, all for our general amusement. A great supporting cast was on hand, with Joan Allen, Gina Gershon, Nick Cassavetes, Alessandro Nivola, Colm Feore, Harve Presnell (this guy’s post-Fargo credits are sort of obscene), John Carroll Lynch, C.C.H. Pounder, and a then-teenaged Dominique Swain all delivering solid work that tied the two, mega-wattage star turns from Cage and Travolta together. Woo went wild with his trademark double-fisted shoot-outs and bloody, operatic fight sequences studded with classical music, fluttering pigeons, and overall eclectic soundtrack choices (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” gets a very subversive workout), with results that often times resemble an elaborate dance. John Powell and Hans Zimmer teamed up for the pulse pounding musical score, while ace cinematographer Oliver Wood pulled out all the stops behind the camera, resulting in one of the best looking action movies ever crafted. I was totally obsessed with this movie back in the day, and upon revisiting, it’s not hard to see why. It’s absolutely awesome.