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From Under A Rock: Face/Off

September 26, 2016 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
7.9
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From Under A Rock: Face/Off  

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Monday is my birthday, and I just wanted to watch a movie that makes me happy to celebrate. This week’s pick is that movie; it’s ridiculous, over-the-top, and it’s my jam.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Aaron showed Michael The Graduate. This week Michael takes Aaron out from under the proverbial rock for Face/Off.

Face/Off
Released: June 27, 1997
Directed by: John Woo
Written by: Mike Werb & Michael Colleary
Starring:
John Travolta as Sean Archer/Castor Troy
Nicholas Cage as Castor Troy/Sean Archer
Joan Allen as Dr. Eve Archer
Alessandro Nivola as Pollux Troy
Gina Gershon as Sasha Hassler

Michael Ornelas: I’m a big fan of “so bad it’s good” cinema, and Face/Off is in this weird, borderline-uncharted territory where so much of it points in that direction, yet somehow the whole thing works. The story is brilliant, the characters make perfect sense, but we also have two performances from Nic Cage and John Travolta that give this movie a level of eccentricity that I haven’t really seen before or since. And since Aaron, you hadn’t seen it before, I thought it would be a good one to check off your list.

Aaron Hubbard: My initial reaction was something close to horror. The first half hour of this was pretty painful to watch for me, but over the next two hours it managed to jump enough sharks to actually be pretty good. That said, this is definitely the most ridiculous movie I watched this month, and I watched Batman from 1966.
Premise
I’d Like to Take His Face……..Off
Michael: Sometimes a premise is enough to sell me on a movie. Sometimes it’s the cast, the director, and just critical word of mouth, but what puts Michael Ornelas inside of a movie theater, paying for a ticket, is an original premise that I can sink my teeth into, or that I feel I’ve never seen before. Face/Off is a prime example of an idea that sounds borderline impossible to cohesively execute, yet it delivered. If you were trying to sell a studio executive on the idea that for half a movie, you’d have Nic Cage and John Travolta playing their own ridiculous characters, and then the second half, you’d see the actors playing the other person’s character…well you can imagine that it wouldn’t likely be greenlit. Despite all of that though, this movie works tremendously well and I had a blast rewatching it.

Aaron: The merits of a movie like Face/Off are pretty self-evident. I don’t need to look for hidden meanings or analyze the cinematography and editing to enjoy this film, and we all need movies like that in our movie diet from time to time. Unlike the characters of the film, Face/Off makes no attempt to disguise itself; it’s a big dumb action movie with a big dumb premise and it should be judged on that scale.

Michael: Well I disagree on “dumb” but I get where you’re coming from. There’s actually quite a bit of in-depth character work in this film as well, but that is easily overlooked in favor of the action and, well, Nic Cage’s mere existence.
Cage Face
Commitment to an Idea
Aaron: I feel like I should clarify that me calling this premise “dumb” isn’t really meant to be an insult. Afterall, I love superhero comics and those thrive on dumb ideas. The key here is that the gimmick is used to drive the story and the characters. Cage and Travolta aren’t just having fun imitating each other. They sell the psychological toll of trading identities and by the time the third act rolls around, I really wanted to see Castor Troy go down.

Michael: It’s brilliant, how they end up really digging into the counter roles they’re in. At the start of the movie, I really want the character that looks like Nic Cage to get his comeuppance, but by the end of act two, John Travolta is the one I see as pure evil and I feel so much sympathy for Cage. The two men are ridiculous in their acting styles, but when you watch this movie, it’s hard to argue that they’re not effective at their craft.

Aaron: I think the weirdest thing is how the switch affects my enjoyment of the ending. I’ve spent so much time being freaked out by Travolta that when Sean Archer returns home with his face, I feel uneasy instead of happy. I definitely think they made the right choices here, in regards to who plays who for how long. Nic Cage obviously knows how to play over-the-top, but he’s also better suited to selling the emotional journey of Sean than Travolta would have been.
Mirror
The Action
Michael: Plain and simple, this movie had a lot of kickass action. The fight scenes were fun and well-choreographed, we got to see stuff blow up, and (as you pointed out to me Aaron) John Woo doves!! I feel that this movie is just as indicative of the action movie stylings of the 1990s as Lethal Weapon is of the 1980s. In my mind, it may actually be the definitive movie of the action genre from that decade.

Aaron: I hate how right you may be about that. The action in this movie really isn’t my cup of tea; I’ve never been a huge fan of gunplay, explosions or slow motion. But I think about and the action is very similar to films like GoldenEye and Rush Hour. All I can say is: thank goodness The Matrix came out and popularized hand-to-hand combat for American audiences again.

Michael: I can agree with that. This style of film had definitely run its course by the time the decade came to a close and it was cool to get something different. Then the Bourne movies came along and changed them again (for the worse, in my opinion, because I’m really not a fan of the fast cuts and shaky camera; I’m a big fan of actually being able to see the choreography of a fight). I don’t even know what to describe the action we have now. Maybe blockbuster action? I haven’t seen John Wick yet, and I know that was a well-regarded modern action film that didn’t adhere to the Michael Bay/Marvel model of “blockbuster” action, so it’s hard to define where we stand. I’d also like to throw in that I absolutely adore the idea behind the scene where the two men are shooting at one another through the double mirror, because they finally get to fire bullets at what looks like the man they each hate so much (the faces they were donning at that time). It was a great touch.

Ratings:
Aaron: Man, what a difficult film to rate. I don’t think this is “so bad it’s good”, because I don’t think it’s bad. Silly and uneven, yes. But unforgettable and definitely entertaining.

B-

Michael: I put a little bit more value into premise and entertainment, so I actually have this noticeably higher than you do. Sure, Nic Cage is out-of-control in his weirdness on more than one occasion in the film (although the scene where he sets the bomb and then goes and sings “Hallelujah” while grabbing a choir girl’s ass takes the cake), but everything is actually very well executed and I truly believe our difference in ratings come down to our difference in tastes.

A-

Aaron: Yeah, this definitely isn’t something I would normally watch. But I enjoyed it quite a bit, and probably will catch it again when the mood hits me.

Michael: This was only my second viewing of the film, but it made such an impression after the first time that I was so excited by the time this rolled around on our calendar. It grew on me more in my remembrance of my first viewing than it did while actually watching, which is interesting. Because this second viewing lived up to the inflated memory of the first time.

What do you think of the way this movie was executed?

Next week:

Aaron: Oh man am I excited to review this one. This is my favorite science-fiction action movie of the last five years.
Snowpiercer
Michael: I know next-to-nothing about this one, but I’ve heard fantastic opinions about it. Something about a train? Is that even right?

Aaron: Awesome. Fresh eyes are the right way to go into this one.

You wouldn’t put a shoe on your head, would you?

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Check out our past reviews!
Mission: Impossible, They Live, Marvel’s Daredevil, The Silence of the Lambs, 12 Angry Men, The Usual Suspects, The Boondock Saints, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Iron Giant, Fargo, American Psycho, 28 Days Later, Frankenstein, Crank, The Godfather: Part II, American Beauty, Rocky, Alien, Spaceballs, Star Wars: Clone Wars, The Muppets Christmas Carol, Reservoir Dogs, Superman: The Movie, Lethal Weapon, Double Indemnity, Groundhog Day, The Departed, Breaking Bad, Shane, Glengarry Glen Ross, Blue Ruin, Office Space, The Batman Superman Movie: World’s Finest, Drive, Memoirs of a Geisha, Let the Right One In, Apocalypse Now, Aliens, The Incredible Hulk, A Clockwork Orange, Chicago, Seven, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, The Room, Chinatown, Jaws, Unforgiven, RoboCop, The Legend of Korra – Book One: Air, Ghostbusters, Spider-Man 2, Prometheus, Scarface, Gattaca, Monty Python & The Holy Grail, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, Equilibrium, City of God, The Graduate, Face/Off

Michael Reviewed KY Jelly!
Michael’s Spin on Things is a comedic YouTube product review parody channel in which Michael Ornelas will review ANYTHING and EVERYTHING in accordance to the criteria provided by the spin of a wheel.

Aaron is now on Letterboxd!
Check me out here to see my star ratings for 570 films. I will steadily be adding reviews for them as well as creating various lists that anonymous internet commenters can vehemently disagree with!

7.9
The final score: review Good
The 411
It's tempting to be smug and say that Face/Off works in spite of itself, but that's simply not true. The things that make Face/Off worthwhile are only possible because of the unique premise and the ridiculous performances of its leads. Having Nic Cage and John Travolta switch places is enough to justify the movie's existence, but it's genuinely surprising how much drama Woo is able to wring from it.
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