There are few movies that are both immensely idiotic and genuinely thought-provoking, as worthy of being in the Louvre as much as tossed in the dumpster with the old baguettes out back. But “Face Off” asks enough philosophical questions and provides sufficient unintelligible answers to make that rare movie mold. Like Tommy Wiseau’s passionate but perfunctory “A Streetcar Named Desire” monologue from “The Disaster Artist,” “Face Off” feels like it is constantly derailing into chaos but remarkably stays on track. We laugh at Michael Bay movies for their hackneyed dialogue and excess of explosions when really, John Woo movies are nearly identical in form and function. The only exception for Woo is his films carry themselves with an unabashed confidence that makes them just as admirable as they are groan-worthy.
John Travolta plays FBI Agent Sean Archer and Nicolas Cage plays domestic terrorist Castor Troy. Back in the day, Troy tried to murder Archer but ended up killing his son. Those emotional wounds are still fresh years later, when Archer discovers Troy and his brother have planted a bomb somewhere in Los Angeles. To retrieve the bomb’s location, Archer surgically removes his face and swaps it with Troy’s, so he can pose as the terrorist and extract the location from the brother in a milder, Guatanamo-type prison.
When Troy catches wind of Archer’s scheme, he adopts the agent’s old face and begins living a breezy life as Archer. Troy soaks in the praise and affirmation from FBI colleagues and feasts on the love and admiration of Archer’s family at home, while the real Archer rots in hyper-magnetic jail, desperately trying to convince people he’s not really Troy as guards try to keep a straight face.
The premise is entertaining but intellectually insatiable. It’s hard to believe that nobody would notice the difference in body types between the two men (particularly their lovers,) nor ask a question that would require specific knowledge that the real face wearer would know. Additionally, if this illegal jail exists where prisoners needlessly wear giant magnetic boots at all times, why not torture Troy’s brother for the bomb info instead of concocting this ridiculous scheme that is based more on luck than probability? (because it’s a movie!)
But the most interesting querys are the ones “Face Off” never bothers to ask. Archer never has to get any sort of judicial clearance to swap faces with Troy: The commoner’s verdict is that the deed is worth it to stop people getting killed, and, well, Troy was kind of an asshole so who cares. This is immensely fascinating though, because Archer’s urgency to swap faces spawns a discussion about the legal and ethical dilemma of taking one’s identity against their will, even if they’ve admitted to killing thousands. The U.S. generally has no problem waterboarding terrorists, nor playing undercover as criminals who don’t really exist. But wearing a mask of the terrorist without their permission feels like a bigger constitutional infringement than causing them physical harm.
Here, “Face Off” also makes us question the nature of self and identity. Troy acts like a sedated, horny pitbull when he’s posing as Archer in front of the agent’s family, but nobody questions if this salivating canine is their real dad because of his face. When Archer poses as Troy, the criminal’s brother immediately seems cautious of the supposed Troy not keeping to his usual behavior or mannerisms, but still gives him the info he so desperately wants. Personal knowledge and intimate memories are rendered moot, with each men’s respective lackeys and loved ones willing to fill them in on the key details of their lives.
Poetically, the one thing that Archer finally uses to convince his wife he is who he says he is is blood type, an unchangeable but invisible aspect of identity that is so overlooked many people aren’t entirely positive on what their blood type actually is. Archer could have tried the “here’s memories only you and I know game,” with his wife, throwing out factoids like when they had their first kiss or where they first met. But the truth of those efforts would be meaningless since nobody can spot a lying face. This also begs the question of at what point would the men cease being themselves and simply transform into the other’s persona. If the mark of self is one’s one thoughts, knowledge and actions, and access to their internal database of prior thoughts is compromised, then Troy’s receding hairline really is Archer’s the moment his thought access began to wither away.
Released in 1997, “Face Off” feels like the apex of the pre-9/11 action movie environment, where a world relatively at peace found people creating enemies not in foreign foes thousands of miles away, but instead in their next door neighbors, like in “The Rock,” “Con-Air,” and “Speed.” This was still the era where Americans were cautious to new technologies, seen in “Total Recall,” “The Matrix,” and “Terminator 2: Judgement Day.” We still had notable action films where our sense of quiet domesticity was being infringed by small threats (like in “True Lies”) or where opportunistic people weaponized our fear of being threatened against us (like in “Die Hard: With A Vengeance,” since Simon Gruber only wanted money, not to actually kill people.)
But “Face Off” captures that sense of late 90s calm better than any other action film. Troy is trying to escape via plane early in the film but is grounded, having to stay stuck on domestic soil. And when Archer breaks free from his off-the-grid prison, there’s no doubt in Troy’s mind he’s already made his way back home. When Troy first poses as Archer, he remarks on how disgusting the agent’s quaint, suburban neighborhood is. And Archer only really comes to understand Troy when he discovers the criminal has a sort-of nuclear family akin to his own. In an era of relative calm in the world, “Face Off” mirrored the U.S. penchant for inventing enemies at home just so we wouldn’t lose sight of who we were in the world. Considering how “Face Off’s” identity is a movie about two men trying to reclaim their own, nothing could feel more 90s or more appropriate.