Released: 1997
Directed by: John Woo
John Travolta: Sean Archer
Nicholas Cage: Castor Troy
Joan Allen: Dr. Eve Archer

      Poster for the film Face/Off

In the alternate reality I mostly inhabit I suppose this could pass for a sort of movie “review.” So, posted here for credit towards your advanced degree in Film Studies is an old e-mail exchange I (Joel) had with a friend from work (Bill) who had recommended the movie Face/Off to me. I made the mistake of renting it. I was not amused, and e-mailed him to let him know what a waste of a couple hours Face/Off was. That first e-mail is long lost in the misty ether of cyberspace, so we must begin, students, with his reply to me, followed by my long exposition of what’s wrong with Face/Off, and by extension, with current Hollywood movies in general.
     —Zimmerman Skyrat, 101Bananas

Just hold your horses for just one minute. I knew you weren’t going to like Face/Off. That’s why I was laughing when I told you it was like Shakespeare with action. So it wasn’t believable to switch places like that. WELL, OF COURSE IT ISN’T. Realism is not the point of this film (or any film for that matter). The point was that both men assume each other’s identities so as to assume their shadow sides. Realism has nothing to do with it. If you carried this expectation of realism over to other art forms you would see just how ridiculous that assumption truly is. That’s like saying any painting that is not photo-realistic is no good. Then you would have to say that all Matisse, Monet, Jackson Pollock, and Picasso paintings are crap. They are not believable. (Stop looking at the finger, grasshopper, or you’ll miss all that heavenly glory.) The gunplay in Face/Off is no more or less believable than the swordplay in Yojimbo. The purpose of any form of storytelling is to show a spiritual or psychological truth about human existence as expressed in a living symbol. The living symbol part is important. The Mad Max trilogy was pure archetypal symbolism. It came straight from the unconscious. As opposed to say, Waterworld or The Postman, that attempted to mine the same territory, but only succeeded in being tired formula. Face/Off was true and consistent in it’s internal logic. It had a lot of wicked and true things to say about families and marriage (Cage as Travolta, “Lies, deceit, deceptions? This is starting become a real marriage.”) If I want to see real life I’ll look out my window and not try to find it in a movie. In movies I look for other things.
p.s. - don’t even try to refute this by saying it is all Jungian crap ’cause we both know it isn’t.

You’re kidding, right? Or you’re grossly exagerating for effect, right? I’m rolling on the floor! I will have to dissect your e-mail sentence by sentence because it’s full of Clintonian statements (totally false, but claimed to be true simply by assertion). First, the bottom line, right at the start: There’s no accounting for personal taste. Don’t get all riled up because I don’t like the same movies you do. I don’t like the same movies 90% of the American public likes, either. Although I LOVE “Married With Children,” I’d NEVER try and claim it was any kind of “art,” had any proverbial redeeming social value, or anything like that. It’s just so unbelievably stupid that I find it hilarious, that’s all. So I can accept anyone liking Face/Off or any other typical modern Hollywood movie, no problem. A list of MY favorite movies that I really liked would make someone else laugh at ME, no problem there either. But you don’t really seriously consider Face/Off to be anything remotely related to ART, do you? You’re kidding, right? It’s just pop culture mass entertainment, and I’d bet that Johnny Woo-Woo the director would agree with that.

>>Realism is not the point of this film (or any film for that matter.)

Say what? Well, it obviously wasn’t the point of Face/Off, but you’re either kidding, or pulling a Clinton and have forgotten 10,000 movies that were intended to be, and are, very realistic and believable. Movies used to be like that, remember? Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and even one of my personal favorites of all time, Cool Hand Luke. And how about Saving Private Ryan, where everyone agrees Spielberg’s intent was to make the MOST REALISTIC portrayal of the personal experience of combat ever put on film?

>>The point was that both men assume each other’s identities so as to assume their shadow sides.

I didn’t get that point from the movie at all. Sounds like you’re saying that their conscious INTENT in changing faces was so that they could “assume their shadow sides.” I thought it was pretty clear that their only intent in changing faces, and all they wanted to do, was get the enemy; and then once Cage woke up and got Travolta’s face, their only concern was to kill each other, not explore their subconscious “shadow sides.” Nor did the movie do any deep psychological exploring of this “shadow side” at all; it was too busy entertaining you with explosions and gun battles. Now, the basic plot device of Face/Off, the switching of identities, would make a great Shakespearian or Greek tragedy—say, something written by Sophocles after he won that Oscar in 410 B.C. for Oedipus Rex. The gods get pissed at someone in Athens, so Zeus causes his appearance to change overnight to look exactly like that of his worst enemy; now that sounds interesting for an off-Broadway play (WAY off Broadway).

>>Realism has nothing to do with it. If you carried this expectation of realism over....

Realism has everything to do with it UNLESS the director makes it clear that it’s Science Fiction, or a dream sequence, or is fooling you because at the moment you don’t yet know that it’s a dream sequence, etc. That’s why I said Face/Off should have been set in the future, where it would clearly be Science Fiction. Every single serious film critic I’ve ever read occasionally comments about elements of a film that are just not believable, i.e., not REALISTIC. That always lessens the effect of the movie because the obviously fake aspect intrudes into your consciousness when you’re absorbed in an otherwise good story.

>>That’s like saying any painting that is not photo-realistic is no good.

I’ve never said or implied that; don’t believe that; and it can’t be inferred from anything I have ever said to anyone in my life. But painting and film are such different mediums that it’s like comparing the proverbial apples and oranges.

>>Then you would have to say that all Matisse, Monet, Jackson Pollock, and Picasso paintings are crap.

Blasphemy! How dare you even MENTION Jackson Pollock’s name in the same sentence with Matisse, Monet, and Picasso! (You forgot Van Gogh, Magritte, and Hopper, my personal 3 favorites.) Jackson Pollock’s “paintings” (they must be put in quotes) are no more “ART” than Andy Warhol’s “paintings.” ANYone can splatter paint around like Pollock did, and this was proven by several hoaxes that fooled alledgedly serious art critics, which just goes to show that modern art is no longer about art, it’s about fame and temporary popularity, that’s all. (Andy Warhol was very aware of this and understood it very well, exploiting his “fame” to the fullest.) There was a Pollock retrospective at MOMA in New York when I was there a few months ago, and it was all I could do to keep from laughing and pointing at the long line of sheep, uh, weird New Yorkers, waiting in line out the door and down the block as I went in to meditate on Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” The Pollock crowd didn’t even ask me to leave until I had been chanting “OM” for 10 minutes.

>>The gunplay in Face/Off is no more or less believable than the swordplay in Yojimbo.

Not true! There’s a key difference here: In Yojimbo (and Sanjuro, and Seven Samurai), and in a lot (not all) of older Westerns, the premise is that Yojimbo, and the Western hero in the white hat, are the best and fastest with swords or guns. It’s not a stretch at all to believe that the best gunfighter in the West would win five duels in a row, because he would—he was faster than all the others. As was Yojimbo, which makes it perfectly sensible for him to win every sword fight—he was the best. Just like that Russian Sergei Bubka that used to consistently win every single pole vault competition he entered for years, because he was simply the best in the world. The gunplay in Face/Off, and in a hundred other modern Hollywood movies, is completely different from the swordplay in Yojimbo or the gunplay in older Westerns, because even if Travolta and/or Cage were the best marksmen and gun handlers in the world, they still wouldn’t be fast enough to literally dodge a hail of bullets—not once, but repeatedly—the way Woo-Woo had them doing it. A human cannot outrun a bullet! It was just SO unbelievable that it made you laugh.

>>The purpose of any form of storytelling is to show a spiritual or psychological truth about human existence as expressed in a living symbol.

Please! Simply not true again! It certainly may be that SOME storytelling, going all the way back to Beowulf, and SOME movies (very few), and a lot of OLDER novels, have as a goal to show a spiritual or psychological truth. But that was in the dim, distant, misty past, before the radicalized ’60s liberals assumed power in the universities and deconstructed everything. MOST current Hollywood movies, like most current fiction, or music, or “art,” have as their sole goal to simply ENTERTAIN you with mindless pablum, and to even intentionally switch off your brain for a couple hours so you specifically don’t have to think of those difficult spiritual or psychological truths. Like Neal Gabler’s book Life, the Movie says, “entertainment has conquered reality.” Thus we have modern American television, and real-life Truman Shows (à la Jim Carrey in The Truman Show) happening all around us. Almost no authors or directors (with a few exceptions) are willing to even TRY to get remotely within reach of a spiritual or psychological truth. In fact it’s SO politicaly incorrect to even speak of “spiritual truths” nowadays. You would be laughed out of the Hollywood or literary elite and marginalized by bad reviews in the New York Times. I can’t believe anyone would disagree that the goal of most current Hollywood film-making is simply to entertain or scare or shock, NOT to show or tell any kind of deep truth at all, but to stay as far away from it as possible. Because a serious movie makes you think, and as someone once said, there is nothing a man won’t do, no length he won’t go to, in order to keep from having to think—thinking is hard work. But gunbattles and explosions, boom boom! Some fun, Bubba! No thinking required. Face/Off is definitely in the category of mindless entertainment to me. If you want psychological depth, watch anything by Bergman, especially Cries and Whispers, or Woody Allen’s very good imitation of Bergman, Interiors, or his great Crimes and Misdemeanors, or Ozu’s Tokyo Story, or Kurosawa’s Ikiru, or Fred Zinnemann’s A Man for All Seasons, or even Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. You can’t honestly say that you think Woo-Woo had some kind of artistic goal and intent in mind while making Face/Off that was remotely related to the goal and intent in Melville’s mind when writing Moby Dick, or the goal and intent in Conrad’s mind when writing Heart of Darkness, or the goal and intent in Kubrick’s mind when making 2001. Woo-Woo knew exactly what he was doing: making adolescent entertainment that he knew the masses would flock to, thus all the bullets and explosions.

>>The Mad Max trilogy was pure archetypal symbolism.

You’ve lost me on this. I liked Mad Max—it was good entertainment, and set in the future so you knew it was total Science Fiction. But the only archetypes I noticed in the movie were cartoon characters the way Hercules is a cartoon character. And you could literally just as well say that Bugs Bunny is a great archetypal symbol. Hey, now there’s a subject for an long essay....

>>It had a lot of wicked and true things to say about families and marriage (Cage as Travolta, “Lies, deceit, deceptions? This is starting become a real marriage.”)

Come on! I’ve heard Al Bundy say that on “Married With Children” a hundred times! And say it better, and funnier! That’s supposed to be some great and deep insight? And all this time I thought it was just common sense....

>>If I want to see real life I’ll look out my window and not try to find it in a movie. In movies I look for other things.

Then maybe you prefer the pure entertainment type of Hollywood movies that Woo-Woo makes. THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. I’ve never said there was. I just prefer another kind. But actually, I don’t see how you could see any real life out your window, because there isn’t any real life out there anymore. Everyone’s been lobotomized by too much TV and mindless Hollywood movies, so they no longer know what’s real, nor act real, they just try to act like the artificial characters they see onscreen. In the new millennium, the only place you can experience real life is in a good movie or book that aspires to be, and reaches the level of, true art. Because out there in the real world, everyone’s been “Trumanized” into thinking that the more explosions (which never happen in their own life) in a movie, well then obviously the better it is. That’s why I like serious movies, because they’re so much more “real” than the constant entertainment charades playing out all around us 24 hours a day.


(And here’s some excerpts from reviews of Face/Off to back me up....)

Two thirds of a terrific movie.... Travolta and Cage are charismatically over the top, and Woo’s staging of action scenes is powerfully good...but the film doesn’t know when to stop, with one too many of everything. Silly plotting and dialogue might have been overlooked in a tighter film.
       —Leonard Maltin

When Hollywood decides what the public wants, the public had better hunker down for the siege. Now that they know we want our entertainment to be awash in graphic, sadistic violence, they have given us a summer saturated with blood and limbs. And now we have Face/Off. What sets this one apart is terrific direction by John Woo, an extremely clever script, and a soaring acting duet by John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. The movie is, of course, then dipped in special-effects carnage in order to pull us to the multiplex to pay off the studio’s debt in one weekend. The public pays the price for this cynicism. Once again a good movie is consumed by its own fireworks.... If only someone had summoned the courage to say no to special effects, this would be the movie it should have been.
       —Joan Ellis.

To get straight to the point: Face/Off is based on a brillant idea for an intelligent action movie, but unfortunately turns out to be a third rate Hollywood flick. The beginning seems promising enough.... What weighs more heavily is the fact that the last half hour of the movie consists only of action movie cliches. There are wild shoot-outs, but the climax is a speed boat chase that — finally — brings on the obligatory explosions. They show us three in a row, each one more impressive than the one before. After all the pyrotechnists have to work for their money. Unfortunately John Woo had no more original idea for a finale....
       —Monika Huebner

It’s your typical Hollywood action stuff, reminiscent of every major action film of the last few years: explosions; high-speed chases; guns-to-the-head; a firestorm of bullets; and just all-out carnage.... The script works in a very comic book-like manner, as everything is portrayed realistically but it’s too far-fetched to let it sink in. What also disappointed me was how little advantage the film took of its premise. I was expecting (or at least hoping) for something along the lines of The Fugitive, or Heat, with characterization, detective work, and just an overall sense of an intelligent, intricate crime story, but this doesn’t happen.... The last act is the clincher you’d expect it to be and is symbolic of the film’s inability to be anything more than another action movie. I really got sick of seeing all the deaths that occur, both of the supporting characters and people in the background. I counted at least four explosions within the course of three minutes — what does that tell you? Although Face/Off can be interesting at times, it’s not nearly the exciting thrill ride it wants to be. It’s just another case of a good premise ruined by cliches, plot holes, and script a few drafts shy of greatness.
       —Chad Polenz

The film should be fine for and will be enjoyed immensely by teenagers....
       —Steve Rhodes

And this is my favorite review of Face/Off, from the Brown University Film Society Bulletin, which is famous for ripping to shreds every single movie they review in a hilarious way. Even great movies. They NEVER give a movie a good review; at the most it may get a few backhanded compliments. Their review:

Face/Off shocked teenage boys across the nation with its astounding casting of an actual old chick (Joan Allen) to play the role of the old movie star guy (John Travolta)’s wife. This massive, fundamental paradigm shift is so revolutionary that one could easily expect new theories in feminist film semiotics to be formed around it, or, at least, less embarassing junior-high erections. John Woo, whose fans essentially consist of people who think that Reservoir Dogs was a shitty remake of a Chow Yun Fat Hong Kong actioner (oh, wait, it was) and who are typically too busy spray-cleaning their CAV Aliens: Director’s Cut laserdiscs to actually feed themselves, is somehow the kind of guy who wants to throw some sort of halfway believable family-oriented “relationship” bullshit into the R-rated, dual-fisted pistol-shooting face-goring drug-filled jobby-ass that would otherwise be this movie. Instead we find it tinged with this lard about the “good” guy being in love with his genuinely old wife (and the “bad” guy actually coveting her, incredibly), and everyone sits around trying to reconcile the concept that people in movies are allowed to be “attracted” to someone who isn’t, say, a shapely, anorexic supermodel. Concerning the development of American teenage boys, I’d have to give Joan Allen’s existence here a big thumbs up, because after a good 17 years of mass media annihilation I basically walk around thinking that most people my age are already way too old-looking, even though my semi-intentional sleep deprivation in later years has already caused the grey lines under my eyes to be hopelessly permanent. Wow, speaking of hopeless, I’ve made myself unbelievably depressed writing this review. Yeah, so, Face/Off. You know you hate your miserable, pathetic life. Why not watch other people’s miserable, pathetic lives needlessly taken in random hails of bullets and plastic explosives? In a near-future where fat can be siphoned off your body as a plot convenience and “drug dealers” carry cigar boxes full of a random assortment of colored capsules, powders, and balloons, Face/Off brings America into a world of action sequences which are staged less around atrocious one-liners and more around the optimal framing of your favorite Hollywood stars flying directly sideways blasting two handguns simultaneously. Maybe for just 2 hours this carefully constructed assortment of images and sound will help you forget just how worthless everything really is, that is, if you can stop sitting in your room poking through 2-year-old e-mail wishing that you could find a reason to face the outside world.