Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Face/Off
Asian cinema has a very different relationship to cheese from that of the American market. Which is to say audiences there embrace silliness in a way American moviegoers do not — at least from a box office perspective. In China and other parts of the East Asia market, homegrown films have the latitude to be intensely silly while still delivering pathos, action and a surprising sincerity in a way many Americans have a difficult time processing. The common wisdom suggests a movie should be funny and scary or funny and action packed or just a serious meditation on infidelity in the Mid-west. For those with a sense of cheese, that view can be a little myopic; which is why martial arts pictures and the Hong Kong action epics of the 1990s were embraced so heavily by the film cognoscenti of the era. They venerated the abilities of filmmakers like Tsui Hark and John Woo to deliver great action set-pieces and cheesy centers of sincere drama in films like Peking Opera Blues and The Killer.
Then John Woo came to the US and brought his style of action to major Hollywood blockbusters. They were big box office performers at the time, but faded into obscurity after Michael Bay took the action movie throne. Now, looking back at Woo’s run in Hollywood some twenty years later, it is easy to see Hard Target and Face/Off for the cheese-tastic epics they really are. And since I’ve seen Face/Off more often than Hard Target, let’s start there with our Woo appreciation.
The plot concerns Sean Archer (John Travolta), the lead agent on an anti-terrorist taskforce assigned to apprehend freelance terror marker Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). After Castor sets a time bomb at the Los Angeles Convention Center, Archer finally apprehends him. Unfortunately, the capture does not go cleanly and Castor ends up in a coma while his brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola) ends up in an ultra supermax prison. But none of this matters to Archer; he promised his wife Eve (Joan Allen) that he would take a desk job after he captured Castor; who killed their son six years earlier.
Unfortunately, the FBI learn about the time bomb and convince Archer to go undercover at the supermax and learn details of the bomb from Pollux. But since Pollux would only share that information with Castor, Archer only has one choice: become him. The sci-fi tech behind the process in which Castor’s face is taken off his skull and placed upon Archer is mad science and best left glossed over. Nonetheless, it allows Archer to slip in and gain Pollux’s trust. Everything seems to be working until the day Archer is supposed to be collected from the prison. Instead of his FBI minder appearing to extract him, he sees his own face throwing the plan back at him. While Archer was in prison, Castor woke up, learned about the procedure and had Archer’s face sown onto his body. He also killed the doctors behind the surgery and the FBI agents behind the operation, meaning Archer will remain locked up as Castor while Castor uses Archer’s government access to build a new criminal cabal.
Archer escapes, of course, leading to him discovering some of Castor’s old allies and regaining the trust of Eve. It also leads to a number of operatic action scenes and at least one instance of doves flying across the screen in slow motion.
Which, really, is emblematic of the charm to be found in Face/Off. As Woo’s third American production after Hard Target and Broken Arrow, he was at the height of his powers and free to do just about anything he wanted with this rather silly sci-fi cat and mouse premise. The first thing he did was eliminate most of the sci-fi trappings of the script — except for the face-swap procedure and the nature of the supermax — in favor of a modern day look. In part, he made the choice because he wanted to realize a boat chase he envisioned for Hard Target, but he was also uncomfortable with the notion of designing a Los Angeles of the future. And when you look at his Hong Kong crime films, they all take place in a pretty mundane present he seems very comfortable in presenting. Well, mundane until the gunfire starts.
But beyond ignoring the sci-fi elements of the story, Woo’s entire ethos gives the film cheesy life. Archer’s attempt to play chicken with a private jet is shot with absolute sincerity despite being patently absurd. That dedication to outlandish action and performances permeates the film, just as it does with his Hong Kong classic Hard Boiled and the lesser-known, but equally fun, Once a Thief. The slow motion shots of people taking off coats or grabbing guns from holsters generate laughs, but they also manage to be interesting enough to keep you invested in the film as it unfolds.
Buoying the film, of course, are the star performances of Travolta and Cage. The two were not yet revealed as the hammy actors we now know them to be, but Face/Off is the first indication of their goofball charm as both try to out-ham the other while also attempting to play the other person. Cage, as Archer, becomes increasingly unhinged while Travolta, as Castor, becomes a preening ninny. The fact the two actors would get stuck in these modes for the next twenty years only adds to the enjoyment of the film overall. Meanwhile, the hamminess of their acting pleased Woo. According to Nick Cassavetes, who played an underling in Castor’s gang, Woo was lost to a fit of giggles when Cage ad-libbed the infamous “I want to take his face … off!” moment. No doubt he sensed the operatic sincerity in Cage’s choice.
And that operatic pitch is one of the best things about the film. There’s rarely a moment when the film stops for a breath. Everything is heightened beyond the tone of an action film today; especially when you consider the lack of witty banter. But when you compare it to The Killer — in which every scene feels as though it could be the last scene in the picture — it makes sense why Woo would approach this script with a gusto bordering on the unhinged.
Of course, at 128 minute, the movie is a little too long for the over-the-top tone Woo employs; particularly once we get to that boat chase. But on the whole, Face/Off is a wonderful time capsule into the way cheese was not acknowledge and yet still present in the action pictures of the late 1990s.
Face/Off is currently on Netflix. Is also available on disc formats wherever they are sold.