John Woo’s Face/Off is nearly two and a half hours of mostly WTF Moments stitched together across a series of gunfights drunk on slow-mo, interspersed with dialogue scenes where everybody might as well be shouting “Top That!”
We can handle stars John Travolta and Nicolas Cage’s hamminess in the roles of super cop Sean Archer and infamous terrorist Castor Troy, respectively, as they impersonate each other post-face swapping surgery. We can even buy a world where a thing like face-swapping technology exists. Or an underwater prison built under a rusty deep-sea oil platform. But, the moment that outdoes everything, even that scene where a flying helicopter punches a speeding plane, is the implied incest between two characters. This is Face/Off’s bridge too far — in a movie built on nothing but preposterous bridges.
From the jump, Face/Off embraces its weirdness. Castor’s estranged criminal-turned-baby mama Sasha (the scary-good Gina Gershon) and her violent criminal of a brother, Dietrich (Nick Cassavettes), are set up as very close siblings. After their tense interrogations at the hands of Travolta’s Archer, the two hurry out of and away from the interrogation room in a way that strongly suggests they are closer than the average homicidal brother-sister criminal unit.
It’s only after Archer-as-Castor reunites with both siblings and comes down after exposure to booze and narcotics, and learns in a vulnerable moment that he is the father of Sasha’s kid, that Face/Off thinks the most appropriate chaser to this attempt at “drama” is, yup, Deitrich clutching a fatal neck wound as he deep french kisses his sister.
Surprisingly, this problematic-at-best dynamic is not the fault of script. It’s that of the actors. On the film’s behind-the-scenes special features, Cassavettes and Gershon reveal that, despite Woo’s exactitude visually, he is fond of giving his actors room to improvise. For whatever reason, that inspired them to take their characters to a way weird, only-in-a-movie-about-surgical-face-swaps place. Their relationship is even more disturbing when you catch yourself actually feeling something resembling mourning when (insert two-decades-old spoiler alert here) both characters die on-screen. (The fact that one of the film’s beating hearts is given to these two characters and their respective death scenes is another example of Face/Off’s unique brand of “zero f**ks to give.”)
What is truly unsettling about this choice, other than Woo going for it, is how Face/Off gets away with strongly implying incest between two characters in a mainstream studio’s summer blockbuster. Moreover, the filmmakers seem brazenly comfortable doing so in ways that suggest they can’t even be bothered with how bothersome (and gross) and odd (and, again, gross) this choice plays.
Face/Off is both arsonist and fireman. “Pervy” is an accurate assessment of where Face/Off’s handling of sexuality starts and stops. It practically dines out on it. During the opening scenes, we watch Cage’s Castor ask an undercover Fed if she would be grateful if he let her suck his tongue — before she does exactly that. We cringe at Troy posing as Archer covet Archer’s teenage daughter like she’s a walking Maxim cover. The movie is as brazen as it is blissfully ignorant of its use of sex and how it impacts its narrative and audience. The fact that Deitrich and Sasha’s passionate farewell kiss made it into the film, but the MPAA forced Woo to trim frames from his ballistic ballets, is a WTF moment in itself.
Now, 22 years after Face/Off’s release, looking back through a 2019 Hollywood lens, we’ll believe two men can have their faces surgically exchanged, their love handles and hairlines zapped — and go back into circulation with slightly less side effects than having a hangnail removed — before we’ll believe that of all the ideas and choices that go into the making of a wide theatrical release, the one that passed with zero fuss was “what this movie needs is more incest.”
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