Face/Off (1997)

The summer of 1997 looms large in my development as a film buff. Due to circumstances beyond my control, my family had moved to Asheville the year prior, uprooting me from the network of friends I had grown accustomed to in Lexington, South Carolina. There were major drawbacks to this event but adjusting to North Carolina driving laws, which stated that I needed to go through classes prior to becoming eligible to operate a moving vehicle, took the cake. As a 16 year old I was incensed. The workers at the South Carolina DMV would have just given me my license on this all important day, not make me jump through hoops like these North Carolina Nazis that had quickly become the bane of my existence.  The end result was I was still without a full time, no restrictions driver license when I was 17. The other issue was being domiciled at the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere (which I came to love, actually), with no kids my age in the neighborhood to pass those long summer days with. Luckily, there was an oasis for my younger self—a small nondescript, mom and pop video rental business called Magic Rocket Video (the Rocket in the moniker referenced my high school, AC Reynolds, where our mascot was a Rocket; later, it turned into a Rocket Man, sparking a multitude of Elton John/gay jokes from the less PC students in attendance—classy, I know) where you could rent any movie for only a buck. I began consuming movies, sometimes renting as many as 5 in one trip, which is a fair amount of film to consume considering I had only 24 hours to do it in; Magic Rocket wanted them back the next day.

During this stretch of time, I became aware of John Woo. Not the legendary “Hong Kong years” version of John Woo, the director of Bullet in the HeadThe Killer, and Hard Boiled, I would track those down at a later date, college to be exact. I’m referring to the slightly to totally watered down version of Woo, the version that had the backing of Hollywood’s studio system. Yep, I’m talking about Hard Target here people; starring JCVD himself as a ragin’ Cajun hell-bent on bringing down Lance Henrikson in a lightly veiled The Most Dangerous Game remake. Now that I think about it, this might be a good time for a confession… I am an unapologetic action movie junkie. In the past, I have been known to watch the films of Don the Dragon Wilson and Billy Blanks into the wee hours of the morning, when the only light source that remains is the flickering incandescent light that came forth from my 20 inch Sony television. I genuinely love the film efforts from Dolph Lundgren and Steven Seagal. I tell you this so you have some frame of reference when I say that I love Hard Target. Not in some hipster douche bag ironic fashion, but in the truest since of the word. Despite this love, I do recognize the film’s limitations and its maligned reputation fostered by filmgoers in the States. No matter. Hard Target and Broken Arrow would only serve as a warm up for what Woo would drop on action fans everywhere in the summer of 1997. That summer would see the release of several, now classic summer movie tent-pole and genre films. The Lost WorldMen in BlackCon AirThe Fifth ElementAir Force One,Breakdown, and Cop Land would all be released, but none would compare with the pure bombastic summer movie pleasure that Face/Off would give my 17-year-old brain.

 Face/Off is sci-fi action at its best, a twisted game of cat-and-mouse that contains liberal does of gun play, speedboats, and gun play on speedboats. Enhancing the experience, Woo decided to go with 100% practical special effects—just real explosions (of which there are many) and body doubles taking on daring stunt work that is rarely seen in today’s action efforts. Running at a staggering 140 minutes, Face/Offmakes a decision early on to not just be about blowing stuff up. Woo focuses on the characters and their relationships, serving to strengthening the emotional content of the movie—this isn’t action and violence just for action and violence’s sake, a filmmaking decision that resulted in attracting a wealth of acting talent. One of those actors was Nicolas Cage, starring in his third consecutive effort that would focus on a shift in the actor’s image to that of an action star. It also stands as the only action film that would seamlessly blend Cage’s affinity for zany line readings, freak outs, and manic facial expressions into the story’s narrative. After winning the Oscar, the actor’s choice to take the action movie route instead of staying in the smaller, character driven dramas he was previously associated with would come with some backlash; Sean Penn, one of the actor’s closest friends up until that point, derided Cage publicly, going so far as to say that he was “no longer an actor.” This quote has always sounded ridiculous, tinged with a hint of sour grapes. What actor wouldn’t want to be an action star, especially one whose formative professional years took place in the 80s, the pinnacle of the genre? I wouldn’t think that anyone in their right mind could criticize any actor for wanting to star in a film featuring Woo’s signature slow-motion gunplay, to have massive explosions going off behind you as you walk towards to camera in an unaffected manor, all the while dressed in a fashionable trenchcoat and designer sunglasses. I know I would; that would be a dream come true.

My personal favorite Cage moment happens during the opening credits, when the audience is introduced to Castor Troy, renowned terrorist and all around evil dude. Castor has planted a bomb where a Catholic choir recital is taking place and, as part of his cover, has dressed as a priest. He notices a cute, young singer in the front, dances up to her, partakes in creepy small talk, and then, as the camera zooms into the actor’s face, slowly reaches down and grabs the girl’s butt, all the while making a face that relates the orgasmic pleasure this has given him. It’s a hilarious, over-the-top moment that only Cage could pull off. The audience should hate Troy at this point, we have only been with him for a couple of minutes and he has planned to blow up thousands of innocent people and molested a choir girl. Yet, through pure, unadulterated charisma, Cage has somehow ensured that the audience will laugh at his horrendous acts—not a small order. The actor always looks like he’s having the time of his life in this action classic, his line readings are pure fun. Who could forget the following exchanges?

“If I were to send you flowers where would I… no, let me rephrase that. If I were to let you suck my tongue, would you be grateful?”

“Y’know, I could eat a peach for hours.”

[A faceless Castor Troy confronts Dr. Walsh after waking from a coma]

Dr. Malcolm Walsh: What do you want?
Castor Troy: Take one goddamn guess.

Once again, the energy Cage brings to his performances shines through, helping to make Face/Off John Woo’s most respected U.S. effort and a major hit at the box office. The pairing wouldn’t work out as well the second time, their World War II effortWindtalkers was dead on arrival, with Cage giving an uncharacteristically inert performance. Lightning, it would appear, would not be striking twice for this duo. Luckily, film fans and Cage fanatics will always have Face/Off, a film that premium channels will be playing every day until 2023, giving fans ample opportunity to view the action masterpiece.

-David

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