Face/Off (1997): John Woo’s Stylish Actioner, Starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage (Both in Good Form)

On one level, “Face/Off” is a big-budget star-driven Hollywood actioner, with lots of violence and explosions, in the tradition of “The Rock” (Michael Bay, 1996) and “Con Air” (Simon West, 1997), pairing John Travolta and Nicolas Cage (both in good shape) for the first and only time in their careers.

FaceOff (1997 film) poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

But, more importantly, it displays the work of one of the most influential stylists of the 1990s, Hong Kong director John Woo (“The Killer,” “Hard Boiled,” and other great films), who had made his Hollywood debut with “Hard Target” (1993), an inferior picture to his Hong Kong work.

Our Grade: B+ (***1/2 out of *****)

While the plotting per se is preposterous and secondary in significance, the storytelling and the filmmaking are superb, contributing to an enjoyable and thrilling work that takes full advantage of the unique properties of film as a medium.

Scripted by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, the tale centers on an FBI agent who swaps faces with a psychotic terrorist. Sam Archer (Travolta) is an FBI agent, embittered by the death of his young son by terrorist Castor Pollox (Cage), when the latter plants a bomb.  Wounded and lapsing into coma, Pollox is sent to the hospital.

In an effort to discover the bomb’s location, Archer grafts Pollox’s face, hoping to trick his brother Troy into talking.  The trauma wakens Pollox, and enraged, he now has Archer’s face grafted on.  The role reversal enables Pollox to use the Police and FBI.

Woo’s mastery of staging, shooting, and editing elaborate sequences of tension and violence is manifest in this picture, resulting in some thrillingly stylized spectacles.

Take, for example the hyper-kinetic, exhilarating gunfight early in the film, in which Pollox is captured.  The sequence lasts close to 5 minutes and is composed of a montage of no less than 176 separate shots, each of which is carefully planned and executed.

In “Face/Off,” Woo shows an intelligent balance between his trademark as an auteur (stylized, hyper-kinetic direction, lyrical beauty in the most violent set-pieces, sadistic cruelty, stunningly detailed choreography of movement) and the demands of a big summer Hollywood blockbuster (special effects, star power, and a minimal but engaging story).

Of his first three Hollywood movies, which includes “Broken Arrow” with John Travolta the year before, “Face/Off” is the most satisfying.

Oscar Alert

 Oscar Nominations: 1

Sound Effects Editing: Mark P. Stoeckinger, Per Hallberg.  The winner was another Paramount film, Titanic.

Face/Off earned the MTV Movie Awards for Best Action Sequence (the speedboat chase) and Best On-Screen Duo for Travolta and Cage.


Face/Off has inspired the acclaimed movie, “Infernal Affairs,” though director Andrew Lau opted for a more realistic situation. Instead of physical face change, Lau was intrigued by the characters swapping identities. The concept of “bian lian” or “change face,” a technique used in Chinese opera, depicts the morph of Chen and Lau’s characters’ identities between the “good” and “bad” sides. Infernal Affairs in turn has spawned adaptations, most notably Scorsese’s The Departed, which swept the 2006 Oscars, including Best Picture.


Sean Archer (John Travolta)

Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage)

Eve Archer (Joan Alle)

Pollux Troy (Allesandro Nivola)

Sasha Hassler (Gina Gershon)

Jamie Archer (Dominique Swain)

Dietrich Hassler (Nick Cassavetes)

Victor Lazzaro (Harve Presnell)

Dr. Malcolm Walsh (Colm Feore)

Prison Guard Walton (John Carroll Lynch)


Produced by David Permut, Barrie M. Osborne, Terence Chang, and Christopher Godsick

Directed by John Woo

Screenplay: Mike Werb and Michael Colleary

Camera: Oliver Wood

Editing: Christian Wagner, Steven Kemper

Music: John Powell

Production Design: Neil Spisak

Art direction: Steve Arnold

F/X: Lawrence J. Cavanaugh, R. Bruce Steinheimer, Richard M. Zarro, Richard Hollander, Boyd Shermis

Costumes: Ellen Mirojnick

Running Time: 139 Minutes