Before watching the movie:
My strongest memory of this movie being in the world was the giant poster on the side of a building at King’s Island for years. I don’t think it had anything to do with anything at the park, it was just a 50-foot poster nobody bothered to take down across the three to five years my visits were spread across. (Update: apparently they named their head to head roller coaster Face/Off, until Paramount sold the park and the new owner debranded it. I didn’t ride many of the coasters there.)
I later learned the movie is about a good guy and a bad guy trading faces for… reasons, don’t think too much about it. I’m not sure which actor starts as which character, because of course both play both. I’ve heard that Cage as the terrorist gets eccentrically creepy in the way he’s famous for now.
After watching the movie:
Six years ago, Castor Troy attempted to assassinate FBI agent Sean Archer, but the bullet went through Archer’s torso relatively cleanly and killed Archer’s son instead. Now, Archer’s single-minded pursuit of Troy seems at an end as the FBI finally arrests Castor’s gang, with Castor ending the fight knocked into a coma. But before getting knocked out, Castor reveals that he’s planted a bomb somewhere in Los Angeles. Castor’s brother Pollux is the only one who knows where, but won’t talk, so at the urging of a Special Ops handler, Archer reluctantly agrees to an experimental surgery transplanting Castor’s face perfectly. Once Archer is secretly embedded in the maximum security/maximum cruelty prison where Pollux is being held, Castor unexpectedly wakes up and gets his gang to help him force the surgeon to graft Archer’s face on him and kills everyone who knows Archer has Castor’s face. Not only has Castor stolen Archer’s identity, his job, and his family, Archer is trapped in the identity and the face of his son’s killer.
Cage’s Castor is a very Nicholas Cage performance, but when he’s playing Archer, he’s much more subdued, allowing for the fact that Archer is resisting having a mental breakdown brought on by the nightmare world he’s found himself in, where everyone, even himself when he looks in a mirror, only sees America’s most dangerous terrorist when they look at him. Travolta can be eccentric himself, but not only is his Archer pretty reserved, his Castor is usually pretty good at blending in when he needs to. Cage as Archer as Castor feels a lot more like self-parody than Travolta as Castor as Archer.
Most of the action sequences wear on too long. John Woo is infamous for his indulgences in overdramatic cinematography in the action sequences, but I wouldn’t mind them so much if the fight was half as long. There’s a lot of shooting, a lot of running, stuff explodes impressively, and eventually the story starts again. However, I do appreciate the heavy-handed thematic setpiece of the scene where Castor and Archer standoff on either side of a mirrored wall and try to shoot each other through it, taking aim at the appearance of the man who is their enemy, but is actually their own reflection.
Both men actually have positive impacts on the other’s family lives, in a way. Archer gets to see the effect his actions for the FBI have had on people close to Castor and finds people to care for, but it’s a little surprising that Castor is a better husband and father to Archer’s family than Archer has been, and actually seems sincere about it with the daughter. It’s rare that action movies with crazy A-stories have such earnest relationship subplots.
I’m impressed with Cage and somewhat disappointed with Travolta. It’s increasingly rare to find Nicholas Cage in a movie that’s more preposterous than his performance. It’s got a wacky conceit, cinematic extravagance, and scenery chewing stars, but Cage is the relatively levelheaded hero trying to stay sane in a world gone mad.