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"Let's Castor This Troy."

Written by Steven Walker

Face/Off is John Woo’s best American film by leaps and bounds. I also think it is some of the best work from both John Travolta and Nicolas Cage.

There is no question that the premise is absurd and the conveniences stack up like unbalanced jenga blocks, yet somehow they never fall over. The movie had me with the moment Nic Cage steps out of his car and there is an unnecessary yet sublime slow motion shot of his coat rippling like a cape.  Plus, he is genuinely having fun playing Castor Troy. He swallows huge gulps of scenery every time he opens his mouth, and I don’t think I saw him enjoying himself like this again until Kick Ass almost 13 years later.  Lately cinema has done a pretty good job of providing us with villains who have real backstories and complex motivations, but sometimes you've got to throw all that away and just have a bad guy who loves to be bad.

On the flip side we have John Travolta playing what is essentially the straight man in Sean Archer. What I like is that while Archer lost his son to Caster Troy, he is not a broken man. He still has a healthy relationship with his wife and regrets his inability to connect with his daughter Jamie. All too often in movies when a character has lost a child they go all Captain Ahab and descend into a sub-human place in their desperation for revenge. Archer certainly wants revenge, but he still has a life.

Yes, the whole concept of face-switching is absurd and still patently science fiction (though I'm sure they'll figure it out within the century), but who cares?  Every sci-fi story has some implausible conceit that it asks the audience to accept without explanation (Warp Drive, Lightsabers, Teleportation, Dream Sharing, William Shatner, etc.).  I have no problem with this one.

The true joy of the movie happens after the face switch. It is here that Cage and Travolta remind us why they are superstars. There have been many body-switching movies over the years, but I have never been so convinced by the switch as I am here. It really does feel like these guys swapped souls. From moment one, I believe Travolta is now Caster Tory. The exact same manic energy that Cage was radiating now shines through different eyes.

The fact that Troy ends up bonding with Archer's daughter and making her think that "Wow, my dad really is a bad ass after all" is just deliciously twisted. I love the scene where he gives her a knife and teachers her how to kill a man by stabbing him in the femoral artery.

The great film critic, Roger Ebert (Who I had the pleasure of meeting briefly, though I was a little too starstruck to make an impression), spends a paragraph of his Face/Off review praising Cage for his performance as Troy until he realizes it is actually Travolta playing Troy in the scene in question. If the movie wasn't such an over-the-top action orgy, I believe there would have been some Oscar love for these guys.

Cage turning into Archer is equally believable, though slightly less mind blowing since we've seen Cage play the sad, desperate, driven man before.

Where the movie really shines to me is the portrayal of Archer's wife, Eve. I knew the inevitable scene was coming where Archer, in the body of his worst enemy, had to somehow convince his wife of what happened. Movies always botch this scene (I vividly remember a body-swap episode of the X-Files where Mulder is trapped in someone else's body and completely fails to convince Scully of what has happened. This was laughably stupid for two reasons: 1. Scully had seen enough crazy stuff by that point in the series to at least give him the benefit of the doubt. 2. They had been through so much personal drama together that Mulder could have rattled off a whole novel's worth of stuff that only he would know. It was just bad, bad, bad writing and an early sign that the series was doomed).

Anyway, the scene finally arrives and much to my amazement, it plays out incredibly well. Of course Eve is suspicious, but she also knows deep down that her husband has been acting a little off lately. Archer uses the only thing he knows she will trust, which is science. He tells her to take a blood sample. It's realistic, it's completely in character, and it shows the depth of their relationship. Once she does the test, she's a believer and she starts helping him. It's really quite lovely.

You'll notice I've barely mentioned the action. It is really good, fun, exciting action but that is not what I take away from the movie. I remember the cliche-breaking character moments and the great performances. That makes Face/Off rise above most of the action spectacles out there.

 

 

 

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