Face/Off: Still Magically Stupid After 20 Years

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As the summer movie season of 2017 draws to a close, I can’t help but feel a certain pang of disappointment from this year’s round of blockbusters. Oh sure, there were some damn fine entertainments served up for the days of air-conditioned buttered popcorn like the delightful Wonder Woman, the charming Spider-man: Homecoming, the bleakly distressing War For The Planet Of The Apes, the masterful Dunkirk, and the goofball joy of Baby Driver.

However, none of them were stupid enough for the brand of blockbuster success that I crave as my brain melts through the summer months. Sure, The F8 Of The Furious kicked things off with glorious idiocy, but after that? Everything was just a little too sincere or thought out. Even stupid cinema stalwart Michael Bay’s latest Transformers movie was burdened with useless mythology and failed attempts to be clever with history. No one seemed willing to go full stupid.

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As I perused through my Blu-ray catalogue of the big dumb hits of summer past this year, I found myself particularly struck by the summer movie season of 20 years ago. It was the summer when President Harrison punched terrorists in the face in Air Force One (granted, we don’t really need that image these days) and Nic Cage reigned supreme, confirming his action movie stardom with the magnificently idiotic Con Air and then somehow topping himself with the subject of this lament for summer movie stupidity: Face/Off. Yep, that basic cable classic turned 20 this year (feel old yet?) and I somehow found myself feeling wistful for the dopey flick’s particular brand of cinematic excess. There’s simply no way that Face/Off would be made in our franchise hungry times and dammit, I’m not sure I want to live in a world where there could be no Face/Off.

“There’s simply no way that Face/Off would be made in our franchise hungry times and dammit, I’m not sure I want to live in a world where there could be no Face/Off.”

If somehow you managed to miss the magic of Face/Off over the last few decades, it’s the blockbuster where Nicolas Cage and John Travolta surgically swapped faces in a game of obsessed cop and super criminal psychopath. Travolta plays a distressed cop desperate to catch the lunatic who once murdered his son and Cage plays that screaming madman (naturally). Through a collection of screenwriting contrivances far too laughable to be worth mentioning here, Travolta is forced to take on Cage’s face to stop a plot.

Obviously, Cage wakes up and puts on Travolta’s face in revenge, leading to a showdown of flying bullets and glorious overacting. It’s the type of high-concept action movie fluff that unknown hopeful L.A. screenwriters used to be able to sell for a mint and see made into gloriously goofy blockbusters—AKA the type of thing that we could use more of now.

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You see, no one involved in Face/Off operated under the illusion that they were making high art or creating the basis for a franchise that could go on for a decade. They all just wanted to make one big dopey action movie. The preposterous premise was designed to make viewers giggle and give two movie stars a chance to swap personas and overact to the heavens. In the hands of a post-Pulp Fiction John Travolta with a heaping sack of newfound confidence and a wildman Nic Cage determined to turn his surprise 1995 Oscar win into a lucrative career of insane performances that no one would allow anyone other than a movie star to deliver, the film turned into a showcase of cartoony overacting one-upmanship.

“Both larger than life performers impersonated each other’s excesses in even larger-than-larger-than-life terms.”

Both larger-than-life performers impersonated each other’s excesses in even larger-than-larger-than-life terms. It was a movie star show-off season in an era when audiences feel in love with actors instead of costumes and hungered to see their personalities flaunted to the fullest. We got two performances so big that cinema screens could barely contain them from two actors with just enough self-aware wit to play it straight while still going for laughs.

Actors don’t get a chance to find that level of comfort, confidence, or stardom anymore. They can’t get movies bankrolled until they have a superhero property to support their stardom and even then, studios won’t allow them to indulge in insanity like this—and that’s a tragedy. Movies were more entertaining when the star system emboldened this brand of self-worship. Sure, that leads to more grounded performances from movie stars these days, but we miss out on overacting magic in the process (how could Nic Cage or even Christopher Walken carve out a career in chewing scenery as bad guys today when their only options are dull B-level Marvel comics baddies).

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Beyond that, there was a master of action movie cheese and poetry behind the camera who is dearly missed. Face/Off marked the moment when Hong Kong action legend John Woo got a chance to flex his muscles with the Hollywood machine behind him. Through a career of brilliant Hong Kong titles like Hard Boiled, The Killer, Bullet In The Head, and A Better Tomorrow, Woo transformed gunplay choreography into a beautiful ballet of destruction with gloriously goofy melodrama linking it together.

When he got to Hollywood, he did get to make Jean-Claude Van Damme’s best flick Hard Target and the decent Broken Arrow, yet only under the thumb of standard studio spectacle. In Face/Off, Woo got the budget to crash a plane into a hanger filled with fireworks in his opening scene and then give Cage and co. a chance to do some Hong Kong-inspired doubled-fisted gun dances later on. Woo staged insane levels of action that bent physics and logic to his will for the sake of spectacle.

The result was an action movie that was beautifully crafted in its reckless destruction, finding genuine movie magic and bizarre overblown visual metaphors within an onslaught of lizard-brained entertainment. Face/Off was high-level technical art and Z-level trash all at once, a movie to playfully mock until it forced you to gasp in awe. In short, it’s magical B-movie entertainment.

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Nicholas Cage in Face/Off (1997) images via Paramount Pictures

A film as unabashedly dedicated to lovingly ludicrous storytelling and masterful action craft as Face/Off should still qualify as mainstream in 2017, but it doesn’t. Studios are too nervous about investment and return to dedicate that level of resources to a script with no franchise appeal or established IP success. Movie stars are rarely powerful enough to bankroll blockbusters and are far too worried about their careers to commit to this level of ridiculous performance.

Worst of all, directors rarely get the control necessary to deliver a personal aesthetic in their action scenes, with those sequences typically a collaboration between a director and a team of effects story artists who design all the spectacle for Marvel, Star Wars, Fast And Furious or whatever franchise (Sure, Edgar Wright delivered some delightfully personalized spectacle in Baby Driver, but even then it was for a fraction of the budget that the big boys play with). Somehow even a project as unapologetically commercial as Face/Off is too risky to secure Hollywood’s resources. The movie just wouldn’t happen today and that’s a crime.

“Somehow even a project as unapologetically commercial as Face/Off is too risky to secure Hollywood’s resources.”

I never imagined there would be a day when I watched Face/Off through tearful nostalgia, lamenting that, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” Yet, that happened this summer. Oh sure, I still giggled and smiled and enjoyed myself. Face/Off doesn’t allow its viewer to experience anything but joy, people! However, somehow the film has aged from 1997’s biggest and dumbest blockbuster into a relic of artistic freedom for actors and filmmakers within the realm of dumb, dumb entertainment. That shouldn’t be possible, yet here we are.

Since this blockbuster season didn’t exactly pull in record-breaking box office tallies, maybe some of the studio bean counters should take a peek back at Face/Off and remember what can happen when they give a little freedom to filmmakers while still delivering a highly commercial product. Until then, at least we can all still see Nic Cage fly through the air holding two golden handguns backlit by explosions and shed a tear as we recall what was once possible in the summer blockbuster game.

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