A COMPLETE RETELLING OF FACE/OFF AS I SAW IT
Posted June 19, 2020
According to the data from streaming sites, a disproportionate number of viewers have been rewatching movies and TV shows they’ve already seen instead of trying something new these last few months. And if that’s you, let the record show that you are completely normal.
Call it the comfort of something familiar in a time of national panic. It’s the reason you’ve been getting so many texts from exes, and it’s the reason I keep craving food from my favorite pizza place.
I assume it was this need for familiarity that made me recently spring for the 2.99 to rent Face/Off, an action movie full of diving gun-fights, absurd plot points, and fireballing explosions that only could have existed in the 90’s. As a society, we’ve made many advances since then, even going so far as to literally conduct successful face-transplant surgery, but watching this film, you can’t help but feel nostalgic for what things were like twenty years ago.
As everyone loves to say, “They don’t make movies like that any more.”
So if you’re reading this right now, thinking you could really go for a body-swapping shoot ‘em up, I’d recommend giving it a rewatch. But for those of you who don’t feel like going to the trouble, don’t worry. I’m here to tell you everything that happened in the movie, exactly as I just saw it…
Shootouts in an Airplane Hangar
John Travolta plays Sean Archer, a heavily decorated FBI agent hellbent on catching Castor Troy, a malicious psychopath played by Nicolas Cage who killed Archer’s son and is a… freelance terrorist? It’s really not clear. After a shootout in an airplane hangar culminating with the power from a jet engine launching Troy into a steel grate and putting him in a coma, Archer comes home to his family, a man ready to give up his obsessive job and become the dad his family always deserved.
But unfortunately for him, he forgot the cardinal rule of action movies: No cop can ever have a happy family life for more than five minutes.
There’s a Bomb in Downtown LA!
The FBI learns that Troy has planted a bomb somewhere in Los Angeles, set to go off October 18th, leveling anything within a square mile. Meanwhile, the only people who know the explosive’s location are a comatose Troy and his tight-lipped brother Pollux, and if you think that means the only sensible thing for the Bureau to do is evacuate the city on the 18th, then clearly you would not have been a very good FBI agent in the 90s, because that thought never crosses anyone’s mind.
Instead, they do the next most logical thing: They decide to take Castor Troy’s face off, put it on Sean Archer, reconstruct Archer’s body, hairline, and vocal functions to match Cage’s, then use this altered identity to obtain key information from Pollux. For good measure, they decide not to tell anyone, including Archer’s wife or his supervisor.
Which are two restrictions the movie never really explains. Here we have an unfindable bomb with the potential to blow up the city, and when the team comes up with a plan to locate it, they decide to not even present it to their boss. Now, I respect the importance of employees being empowered to act without managerial oversight, and I also respect the importance of not bringing every last tiny problem to your supervisor. But I do kind of feel like the Hail Mary play you’ve drawn up as your only hope of preventing a tidal wave of destruction through downtown LA might be worth running by him.
Meanwhile, Archer tells his wife N-O-T-H-I-N-G. Like, he doesn’t even tell her to, ya know, take the day off from work and leave town on the 18th. But okay, we’re plowing forward with the plot, because it’s face swaping time!
We Now Ask Our Audience to Suspend All Disbelief
The procedure central to the film is, of course, heavily based in science. A doctor removes both characters’ faces with lasers, places what looks like a $12 plastic Toys “Я” Us mask onto Archer’s skull, layers Troy’s face on top of that — a fairly quick process done primarily by gently massaging on the new face to make sure it fits correctly — then uses lasers again to bond the new face to the skin, leaving behind zero scarring. At that point, as the doctor explains it, “We simply connect the muscles, tearducts and nerve endings.” They fix the hairline with scissors, do plastic surgery on the torso, and make Archer’s voice mirror Troy’s by “implanting a microchip on his larynx,” which — and let me concede, I know nothing about technology — I really don’t think is how microchips work.
The doctor goes on to warn Archer about how vulnerable that microchip is, explaining that “pressure, a sharp blow, even a violent sneeze will dislodge it.” As for the new skin lasered onto Travolta’s face and his restructured body? Those will apparently be good to go as soon as he wakes up.
Operation: Locate the Bomb
Dropped into prison disguised as Nicolas Cage/Castor Troy, Archer successfully elicits the bomb’s location from Pollux. But there’s a problem…
In the outside world, the real Castor Troy, who, to be clear, was in a vegetative coma, simply wakes up. What is the security situation for this homicidal maniac? Um… absolutely none. There are no guards, he has no restraints on, he is completely unattended to. How many doctors and nurses stay in the building to supervise this man on life support? Um… absolutely none. Troy has the run of the place. And once he figures out what’s happened to him, he has his goons track down and bring in the doctor for another round of surgery, this time to put Archer’s face on his skull. When he’s done, Castor Troy, now dressed up as John Travolta, sets fire to the entire medical team as well as the only agents who knew about operation face swap. In other words, he’s just killed the only people in the world who know that Sean Archer is Nicolas Cage. So while Travolta lives it up pretending to be Sean Archer — moving in with his family and disarming the very bomb he planted so he can become a national hero, Cage is left trapped in prison, where nobody believes he’s actually a cop.
Cage has no choice: He’ll have to break out of jail. So he does! He incites a prison riot, and in the ensuing commotion he sneaks out a side door and onto the roof. But when he gets there, he realizes the whole prison is built on a floating barge. Helicopters swarming overhead start firing machine guns, he makes a break for it and jumps god knows how many stories into the freezing ocean. Now I know what you’re thinking: “Even if that fall didn't kill him, he's totally screwed. If he stays underwater he’ll drown, and if he surfaces, he’ll be a sitting duck for those machine-gun toting helicopters. I can’t wait to see how he escapes all this!”
Well too bad, because none of that is ever addressed. We cut to another scene, and the next time we see Cage he has made it to shore and is completely fine.
Convincing Your Wife That the Man She Thinks Is Her Husband Is an Impostor
Onshore, Cage calls Victor Lazarro (the supervisor left out of the loop on his surgical endeavor), only to have Travolta answer the phone.
So, put yourself in Cage’s shoes. You are up against an enemy with the power of the entire FBI behind him, and you look exactly like the most wanted criminal in America. But you do have one advantage: The Bureau thinks you died in a failed prison escape, giving you the element of surprise. You’ve unintentionally called Travolta, but luckily for you, he declared who he was when he picked up the phone, so you didn’t accidentally give yourself away. Do you a) hang up before he knows it’s you or b) announce your arrival on land in LA?
He chooses option b. Heaven knows how he climbed so high in the FBI.
After meeting Adam, an adorable kid who we discover is Troy’s son, and engaging in a pretty badass shootout at Troy’s old headquarters, Nicolas Cage heads home to find his wife, Eve. Cage eventually convinces Eve that Travolta is not her husband, but rather an impostor, and Cage is the man she’s known all these years. The two come up with a plan for Cage to take out Travolta the next day, at the funeral for Victor Lazarro, who Eve explains has died of a heart attack.
And here we are: Set for the final showdown. Nicolas Cage is about to arrive at a funeral presumably attended by the entire FBI, an organization determined to kill him. To make matters worse, Travolta is armed and standing directly next to Eve, a prime choice should he take a hostage in any ensuing fight. The deck stacked against him, Cage has exactly one thing going for him: The element of surprise. He will show up when Travolta least suspects and…
Never mind, he again completely flushes this edge down the toilet by sending an altar boy to announce his arrival to Travolta.
The Final Battle
The ensuing fight scene is phenomenal. Characters dive through the air while firing guns mid-flight. The church set is masterfully torn apart by bullets. At one point there’s a six-way weapons-drawn standoff. And it all comes to a head when Travolta grabs Archer’s kid, holds a gun to her head, is about to shoot her, and she pulls a switchblade and drives it into his leg. The whole move is a classic Chekhov’s switchblade scenario hearkening back to a moment earlier in the film when Travolta gave her that same weapon and taught her to use it exactly the way she just used it on him. It’s a fitting resolution to a great fight scene and a way to end everything that —
No wait, Travolta escapes and hijacks a boat, leading to an entire chase scene on speed boats!
God this is a good movie.
As Cage chases after Travolta, a stray machine gun shot strikes a fuel tank, which causes — as I’m sure it would if this exact thing happened in real life — a massive explosion. Moments later, Cage finds himself on a boat of his own in hot pursuit when his vessel is sent flying into a larger ship causing — again, just like it would in real life — an enormous fiery explosion. Cage’s boat, barely still intact, then crashes into a dock, causing another giant explosion. Ultimately, the water-bound war reaches an end when Travolta's boat is sent flying into the air, flipping top over bottom several times before landing in the water which again causes, you guessed it, a massive explosion.
The film’s detonation quota safely hit, the two continue their fight on shore, going back and forth before finally, Cage murders his rival with a harpoon through the gut, then staggers to the ground in exhausted victory.
And that’s it. Eve explains to the Bureau that Cage and Travolta have switched faces, Cage goes into surgery to regain his old visage, and all that’s left is that final 90-second wrap-up scene where Travolta returns to his family, they give him a big hug, and we cut to credits. Theoretically, this should be a pretty easy dismount for the filmmakers to nail. Instead, this is the final scene…
 According to the data, many of us are also watching disaster movies about global pandemics like Contagion and Outbreak right now. And if that’s you, let the record show that you are a psychopath. [Return to footnote 1 in original story.]
 At one point, the scientist explains, “We’ll do an abdominoplasty. Take care of those love handles.” Which just feels like a rude screenwriter taking a totally unnecessary shot at JT’s weight. But I digress. [Return to footnote 2 in original story.]
 Just a few scenes later, Archer-dressed-as-Troy will get into a fight in which he is body slammed by a mammoth of a man, kicked in the chest by an industrial strength metal boot, and hurled into a table, all as his new voice remains completely intact. But apparently a bad sneeze would be catastrophic. [Return to footnote 3 in original story.]
 Even Trump wouldn’t appoint someone this bad to head up the FBI. [Return to footnote 4 in original story.]
 No word on whether the doctor put his love handles back. [Return to footnote 5 in original story.]
I've never worn another man's face, but I have worn a Mickey Mouse costume while marching in a parade through Boston. I have also been a research study guinea pig, a landmine detector tester and, most frightening of all, a substitute teacher. You can read those stories and more in my book Odd Jobs by clicking here.
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