No this isn’t a film about what happens if you get on the wrong side of a chimp. It’s about a notorious gangster, Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) and a top cop, Sean Archer (John Travolta) who swap faces (and bodies) in an elaborate operation so Sean can go undercover and find the location of a bomb. It’s basically Heat meets Freaky Friday.
The premise of Face/Off and the presence of two of Hollywood’s zaniest actors gives you an indication of the kind of film it is. While it’s written like a straight-to-DVD Steven Seagal movie, its impressive cast lends it credence which was apparently enough to earn it both critical and commercial success. This is confusing with hindsight, as the story is so ridiculous, so unfathomably nonsensical, that it’s really hard to enjoy the movie’s strengths.
Wacky sci-fi ideas can work well. Think highly underrated Arnie film The 6th Day, which makes brilliant use of its undeniably absurd cloning premise. The problem is that it asks us to suspend all rational thought. It’s true that you don’t watch a film like this for logic, but if everything that happens is illogical even within the parameters set by the film, it becomes very hard to care about the outcome. It even features a futuristic prison so illogical it rivals X Men: The Last Stand‘s anti-Magneto metal truck mutant cage.
The Travolta and Cage swap sounds good on paper, but when you think about it the two aren’t all that different. Both have done some excellent work (Moonstruck, Saturday Night Fever), and some less good work (The Frozen Ground, Staying Alive); both have a barely-disguised undercurrent of psychosis (Mandy, Swordfish) and both have been in weird religious propaganda (Left Behind, Battlefield Earth). Maybe the point is that they’re similar, but as a result the film forgoes the obvious opportunity for entertainment value that comes from a more radical body swap. The first choice for the lead roles were Arnie and Sly, which could well have been more entertaining.
All this is a shame because it has some major strengths. The overall look and feel is dated, but the action scenes are numerous and brilliantly executed with epic scale and exceptional stunt work. The music is really good as well, if excessive in places. But when every scene leaves you with 12 questions it gets to the point where you want to head/off.