John Woo’s ‘Face/Off’ Is More Than a Body-Swap

John Woo’s Face/Off takes the cheesy action-thriller cliche to such committed extremes that it becomes, somehow, ingenious.

There are many reasons to think Face/Off would be a ridiculous movie. John Travolta plays grim FBI agent Sean Archer, who switches faces with his comatose nemesis, Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) for an undercover mission. Troy wakes up, grabs Archer’s face, destroys evidence of the switch, and identity-swapped mayhem ensues. In other words, it’s a high-octane thriller exploring the notion that cops and criminals are really two sides of the same coin. As Cage himself says in Adaptation: “See every cop movie ever made for other examples of this.”

The potential for high-concept hackery is reinforced by listening to screenwriters Mike Werb and Michael Colleary on commentaries and behind-the-scenes footage for the new two-disc collector’s edition DVD; they seem like nice enough fellows, but they toss around boilerplate character motivations (obsession, tense family life) and words like “emotion” in ways that sound suspiciously like the Robert McKee screenplays gently spoofed by Charlie Kaufman.

But Face/Off takes this cheesy action-thriller cliche to such committed extremes that it becomes, somehow, ingenious. The central gimmick becomes a terrific acting stunt: When Archer and Troy swap places, Travolta is suddenly playing Cage pretending to be Travolta, while Cage imitates a Travolta imitation of him. It sounds convoluted, but amounts to both men doing a weird, winning mix of imitation and insanity (plus, they both get a turn playing conflicted hero and over-the-top villain). The script maximizes the conflict (both domestic and armed), the actors do some of their best work, and director John Woo choreographs it all with flair.

Indeed, this may be the last time the Woo signatures — slow-mo gun battles flanked by slo-mo birds; “balletic” leaps through the air; two-man Mexican stand-offs — were effective in a remotely serious manner; Cage and Travolta legitimize what looked, in Mission: Impossible II (2000) and Paycheck (2003), more like hollow posturing. For these collaborative reasons, the mixed DVD commentary track, with Woo, Werb, and Colleary together, is more worthwhile than a separate writers-only version. Isolated, any single aspect of the film seems sillier than it plays onscreen.

The film’s genesis and production are further explored in the multi-part behind-the-scenes documentary, “The Light and the Dark: Making Face/Off” (suggested alternate title: “Face/Off: How John Woo Made His Only Good American Movie”), which runs for about an hour. The details about how the script started out as a future-set piece of science-fiction and was almost directed by Rob Cohen (XXX, The Fast and the Furious) further illustrate just how close the film came to schlock, and how Woo, the writers, and the actors rose to the occasion.

Those actors get their due in a look at their body-swapping performances (as well as Joan Allen’s quiet, effective work as Sean Archer’s wife), pointing out postures and gestures they stole from each other. This documentary sub-section would be even better if peppered with the perspective of Cage and Travolta 10 years later; their interview footage looks like promotional outtakes from the time of the film’s release. Much of “Light and the Dark” is split like that, between worthwhile information and promo fluff.

Over on the first disc, the deleted scenes mostly pad pre-existing sequences that are tighter in the finished film. The exception is a quiet alternate ending, which seems to hint that Archer may not be back in his own face, or something. The sequence is unsettling twice: first because of its dark-hued ambiguity, a horror-movie hint of menace in contrast with the honeyed warmth of the actual ending; and second because it’s somewhat nonsensical (for it to work, both main characters would have to be either brilliantly psychotic or irretrievably insane).

Maybe it’s fitting that many of the extras are standard, though. If a movie, which 10 years later remains one of the most entertaining modern action pictures, transcends its goofy origins, it’s tough to make those origins look great, too.

RATING 8 / 10