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Face/Off Remains One of the Wildest, and Best, '90s Action Movies - Stream it on Peacock

John Woo's legendary sci-fi action spectacle is now streaming on Peacock.

By Matthew Jackson
Nicolas Cage in Face/Off (1997)

Face/Off is an easy movie to remember, even if you've never seen it, because the film's conceptual hook is right there in the name. It's "That Movie Where Nic Cage and John Travolta" swap faces, and will forever remain enshrined in the annals of pop culture because of that plot device and what it allows both stars to do when they start to copy each other's mannerisms and inflections. And, fortunately for all of us, that alone is fun enough to make the 1997 film worth watching all these years after its debut, so we'll definitely keep remembering.

But here's the thing that people forget about Face/Off, particularly if they don't feel a need to revisit the film with any real level of frequency: It's a damn good movie. There's a tendency, especially now when we sometimes view '90s action films as over-the-top and often problematic artifacts from a bygone age, to dismiss them as mindless fun designed only for our eyeballs. But look beyond the gimmick at the heart of Face/Off — now streaming on Peacock for your rewatching pleasure — and you'll find a visually stunning, thematically dense action masterpiece powered by two daring performances and the endless creative inventiveness of John Woo.

Why Face/Off remains an action movie classic

Woo made his name in Hong Kong with films like The KillerA Better Tomorrow, and Hard Boiled. In the 1980s he helped push gunplay in action films farther than it had ever gone before, and became one of the founders of what was later termed the "heroic bloodshed" subgenre of action, making films that often dealt with morally complex characters who were able to cross the dividing line between cop and criminal, and push themselves to redemption no matter the cost. 

RELATED: Nicolas Cage's 7 Greatest Performances

It makes perfect sense, therefore, that Face/Off represented his biggest American breakthrough. Though the script went through some changes along the way, as writers Mike Werb and Michael Colleary pulled back from certain futuristic elements and Woo focused more on the characters at the core of the conflict, it's easy to see why the director was drawn to the film in the first place. It's a showdown between a dedicated lawman and a madcap, relentless criminal, and it features the two swapping roles and essentially falling into the particular drama of each other's lives for a huge chunk of the film. It's packed with imagery that facilitates a study of this duality, and of course it ends with an all-out battle which only one of them can survive. It's got all the makings of a great John Woo film, and the director absolutely delivered on that promise.

It helps, of course, that Woo had Travolta and Cage along for the ride. Cage, who most recently played Dracula in Universal's Renfield, predictably gives everything he has to the role of master criminal/supervillain Castor Troy, a mad genius who's just as at home dancing like a maniac in a monk costume as he is murdering a surgical team. Travolta is, by contrast, devoted to playing the tortured Good Man who's losing his grip on his own identity even before he has to wear the face of his sworn enemy. Together they deliver endlessly watchable moments, and that's before they get to switch places and take on each other's character. 

The swap at the heart of Face/Off is, as we've already discussed, great fun, but what makes the film truly great is Woo's twofold focus on the symbolism at work in the story and the scope of the action. If you know Woo's work in the 1980s, you know that he can stage a gun battle as well as any action director who's ever lived, and that's never in doubt as Face/Off builds and builds on its way to an explosive conclusion. Woo's swooping, bold camera work is always there, driving the action even when things descend into all-out chaos, and the focus on the moment-to-moment craft makes all the difference.

But what's even more striking is the way that Woo never lets you forget his real focus on the story of two men who, much as they might hate to admit it, have more in common than they might realize. The film's focus on mirrors, on things arriving in pairs, and on the way Travolta and Cag's lives and movements echo each other all flow through Woo's intense grasp of storytelling detail, and that makes it both a great popcorn movie and a masterpiece of its genre.

So, if it's been a while since you took a look at Face/Off, consider this your invitation to go back. You won't regret it.

Face/Off is now streaming on Peacock.

Originally published May 29, 2023.