We ask a lot of action movies these days. Explosions, first of all—those are non-negotiable. Balletically choreographed fight scenes, definitely. Winking jokes, a general sense of whimsy, unapologetic violence—almost always. But that’s not enough, anymore. Today’s audiences, being a sophisticated and jaded sort, expect ambitious approaches to action as a genre and, really, as an ideology: We want action that is also art. Narratives with literary nuance. Heroes who double—maybe! ambiguously!—as anti-heroes. Villains who are evil but also so very complicated in their villainy. Plots that, like cinematic parfaits, are intentionally layered, and that have in the layering something to say, by turns, about recurrent bloodshed and life under terrorism and the trolley problem and the purpose-driven life and The Way We Live Now.
It’s wonderful, definitely, all this literary aspiration. It helps to make heroes cinematically interesting and narratively compelling. But all this meaning-layering can also be, for the viewer, exhausting. There’s so much to think about, when you see a movie today. So much to analyze. Even—and, now, especially—when the production you’re watching involves a guy who saves the world while clad in a colorful pair of exo-underwear.
I mention all that because of Face/Off, the John Woo movie that turns 20 years old this week and that remains, despite the many action films that have followed it, a reasonable contender in the crowded contest for the Best Action Movie of All Time. Face/Off is not, in the literary way, artful. It is great for precisely none of the reasons that a 21st-century action flick might be called “great.” Its characters are cartoonishly flat; its story is patently absurd; its writing, and indeed the general attitude it adopts toward the English language as an institution, pays preemptive homage to the Bravo school of “unscripted” dramas. “The clock is ticking and so is the bomb,” one character informs another, to set the stage for the events that will unfold in the film, and the line is exceedingly stupid and entirely straightforward and, in that, absolutely perfect.
The plot of Face/Off goes like this: Sean Archer (John Travolta), do-gooder and FBI agent, has spent much of his career following the nefarious workings of the terrorist-for-hire Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). Just after Castor and his brother (Pollux, natch) plant a bomb somewhere in Los Angeles, set to detonate at a time between “now” and “very soon,” the FBI raids them and their gang—with the resulting firefight putting Castor in a coma. With Pollux in prison, there’s only one way for Archer to determine the location of the bomb—the clock is ticking—before it does its worst: Archer must, yes, pretend to be Castor. Enter the experimental surgery in which Castor’s face, yes, comes off.
But then—twist! Or, well, another one! Castor, defying the expectations of the medical establishment, wakes up from his coma! And then he forces the doctor who did the original face transplant to graft Archer’s face—floating, by then, in some unnamed liquid, to be reclaimed by its owner at a later date—onto his own! And so it happens that, Sean Archer must navigate the world wearing the face of his sworn enemy. And that Castor Troy must do the same. Troy, a sociopath with a finely tuned sense of irony, is decidedly more enthusiastic about the situation.
Think the men will end up fighting each other, in a balletically choreographed manner? Think Troy will crack jokes about how handsome the FBI agent has become, post-surgery? Think he’ll make wincingly inappropriate remarks to Archer’s teenage daughter? Think things will culminate in an oceanside church, with doves flying and organs blaring and guns blasting in a symphony of contained violence? Yes. And yes. And yes.
You might also think, given all that—and given all the doubleness built into the premise of this film—that Face/Off would have things to say about religion, and/or Cartesian dualism, and/or the nature of the self, and/or the nature of the soul. But—and here is the true greatness of the movie—it really, really does not. This is not a philosophical film. It doesn’t brood or wonder. Instead, it features 139 minutes of John Woo doing what John Woo is so singularly good at, which is to make movies of set pieces, and to stage each action sequence, in particular, as a deftly choreographed performance unto itself. The rest—the characters, the dialogue, the story itself—is scaffolding. There’s a scene that finds Archer and Troy aiming their guns at each other, each on the opposite end of a double-sided mirror … and the image that results is on the nose, sort of literally, but also the whole point.
So Face/Off is an achievement of pure entertainment, and pure aesthetics. It is striking and fun and occasionally funny, and that is quite enough for it. The movie might hint at what would come, from other action films, as they began to take themselves more ambitiously—even its titular pun is suggestive of symbolism—and yet it never fully engages in any of that self-seriousness. It doesn’t need to. It understands that, sometimes, the most delightful thing that can happen on a movie screen is John Travolta playing Nic Cage playing a fictional character—and then making a Travolta-lobbed crack about “this nose, this hair, this ridiculous chin.” Face/Off understands that, sometimes, the best thing an action movie can do is to set a climactic, explosion-fueled firefight to an especially emotive rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Why set that particular scene to that particular song? The better question, this movie insists, is: Why not do that? Face/Off could be smarter than it is, sure, but why bother? It’s having too much fun.