The great Hong Kong action director John Woo got to make a handful of English-language movies during his '90s Hollywood period. But he only ever got to make one true John Woo Movie here. That'd be 1997's Face/Off, an absolute nutball mega-budget pileup of all his favorite images (guys flying through the air in slo-mo while shooting two guns at once, doves flapping around chapels in slo-mo during gunfights) and themes (the bonds between cops and criminals, the nobility of going into battle even when you know you're going to die). It also had an absolute lunatic central performance from Nicolas Cage, during that strange-in-retrospect cultural moment before people realized that Cage was a certifiable loon, when he was somehow allowed to be a movie star.
The result made no sense, and certainly earned its R rating. Didn't matter. Face/Off still did massive summer-blockbuster numbers, and holds up great today. Why can't we have movies like this anymore?
Woo's Hong Kong movies from the late '80s and early '90s invented entirely new cinematic-violence languages; his best, Hard-Boiled and The Killer, are two of the best action movies ever made by anyone, anywhere. By the time he got to make Face/Off, he'd also proven himself a perfectly capable and even inspired technician of the mid-budget Hollywood-style action movie. With 1993's Hard Target, he'd given Jean-Claude Van Damme arguably his best non-Bloodsport movie, and he'd extended John Travolta's post-Pulp Fiction hot streak with 1996's Broken Arrow.
But it's still amazing that a major studio would give him $80 million and 140 minutes of screen time to indulge his love of Mexican standoffs and trench coats that blow photogenically in the wind, and to let Nic Cage absolutely loose. But checks were written, this movie made money, and we're all better off for this absurd thing being out there in the world.
In retrospect, it's a minor miracle that people were willing to treat Face/Off's plot as anything other than pure balderdash. John Travolta is supercop Sean Archer, and he's been hunting Cage's super-criminal Castor Troy ever since Troy killed his young son. He's caught Troy, who has gone into a coma during the ensuing gunfight. But Troy's also planted a bomb somewhere in downtown L.A. And somehow, the only way to find that bomb is to rip Archer's face off and sew Troy's face onto it, and then to send Archer into a top-secret floating prison where everyone wears magnetic boots, just to ask Troy's brother where the bomb is.
If the LAPD had invested in some better bomb-sniffing dogs, or if the FBI had one negotiator able to cut a deal with any of Troy's associates, the whole mess could've been avoided. But of course, while Archer is in prison pretending to be Troy, Troy wakes up, puts on Archer's face, and then goes about pretending to be Archer.
There are about a million "wait, what?" moments in this setup, and the whole thing would've fallen apart if the screenwriters had spent too much time thinking about the leaps they were asking the audience to take. Meanwhile, Woo actually makes the whole thing less plausible, moving a futuristic script into the present day and just figuring we'd go along with the whole experimental face-switching surgery thing. But logic goes out the window long before the face-trade goes down. Even in the opening scene, you have to ask yourself: Would a criminal mastermind really attempt to sniper-murder the cop who'd been chasing him? And would he try to do it himself?
But the plot is allowed to be goofy as hell, since it only really exists for two reasons. One is to serve as a hanger for Woo's insane action sequences, which are just spectacular. The first major action setpiece arrives just minutes into the movie, when we barely know who the characters are. It's a big plane/helicopter/jeep chase scene that evolves into a classic Woo shootout, one where someone will fly back 40 feet when he gets hit with a shotgun blast. The movie ends with a boat chase that rivals the one in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In between, we get a generous helping of Woo's trademark operatic gunfights, as well as some deeply satisfying super-prison fights.
The other reason for that story to exist: It gives Cage and Travolta a prime opportunity to wild the fuck out. With the face-switching conceit, both guys get a chance to play two characters, and both have more fun when they're pretending to be evil. Travolta does what he can to keep up with Cage, and the evil dance he does before planting the bomb is a great moment. But Cage owns the movie, giving a performance just as mesmerizingly strange and over-the-top as what he'd do years later in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans or the Wicker Man remake. The religious-rapture faces he makes when he grabs ladies' asses, the random ejaculations of "You watch your fucking mouth!," and the shrug he gives after throwing an FBI agent's body from a moving plane are all Peak Cage.
There's a prison-fight moment where Cage-as-Archer is trying to convince everyone that he's really Castor Troy, and it's one for the ages. After beating up some random old acquaintance, he just starts yelling, "I'm Castor Troy!" over and over, cackling maniacally. For a brief second, he breaks, looks like his heart is falling to pieces, like he can't contain his inner pain. He does this in full view of the entire prison. But nobody seems to notice, because a second later it's back to "I'm Castor Troy!" The whole thing is just stunning.
But the best reason to rewatch Face/Off in 2014 is to marvel at the fact that the movie even exists in the first place. If you haven't seen it since it was first out, it's way, way crazier than you remember. But there are all sorts of little distinctly '90s touches that make the entire affair seem even stranger. The young-and-skinny version of Bunny Colvin from The Wire! Tricky's "Christiansands" playing in a drug den! The director of The Notebook, in a shaven head and velvet smoking jacket, complaining that a gunfight is ruining his drug den! Margaret Cho in there for some reason! Hyde from That '70s Show attempting to date-rape Lolita-era Dominique Swain!
There's also the movie's impact on late-'90s Atlanta rap; it's where Pastor Troy got his name and JT Money got his "Who Dat" video concept! But if you really need another reason to see this one again, I will leave you with the gruesome image of post-face-removal Nicolas Cage, his head oozing with gore, smoking a cigarette and sarcastically applauding the doctor who ripped that face off. There are better movies on Netflix, but there might not be any that are more fun to watch.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice,GQ, Grantland, and The Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.
Previous installments: The Chinese Connection | Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning | District B13 | Uncommon Valor | The Heroic Trio | Safe | Mad Max | Ip Man | Big Trouble in Little China | Sonatine | Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior | Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd | 13 Assassins | Death Wish 3 | The Legend of Drunken Master