The one Nicolas Cage film that truly holds a special place in my heart is probably not one commonly regarded as his best. It’s not Leaving Las Vegas, or Adaptation, or Raising Arizona. No, it’s the one where he co-stars with John Travolta and says things like “When this is over, I want you to take this face and burn it.”
In Face/Off, FBI Agent Sean Archer (Travolta) knocks his terrorist nemesis Castor Troy (Cage) into a coma, but soon discovers that Castor has already planted a bomb somwhere in LA. His incarcerated brother Pollux knows the location, but isn’t telling. The obvious solution, then, is to surgically remove his own face and borrow the comatose Castor’s for a little while. Unfortunately, Castor soon wakes up, and the only spare face available is Sean’s.
Does any of that make a lick of sense? No, but just go with it. Playing a man trapped in the identity of his worst enemy gives Cage the opportunity for some top-notch whimpering and gurning, which he does with aplomb; the highlight of his performance comes when, having been drugged by one of Castor’s associate, Sean staggers to the “little boy’s wee-wee room” to wave guns at his reflection. “I’m not me, I’m me! I’m not me, I’m me!” he mutters, then sets his much-hated face into a terrifying rictus grin (above). Mercifully, someone then punches him. Travolta’s toothy portrayal of the face-swapped Castor is immensely camp and oddly hilarious, a bit like Kenneth Williams playing Hannibal Lecter. John Woo directs, so the action is satisfyingly over-the-top, with a Mexican standoff in a dove-packed church, a shootout in a hall of mirrors and, excellently, someone driving a speedboat through another boat.
With yet another viewing of Face/Off under my belt, I am left with two questions. First, why doesn’t Cage play more villians? His early, pre-surgery Castor Troy is certainly more threatening than John Travolta’s, and yet while Cage plays plenty of anti-heroes, he rarely seems to abandon hero duties entirely. The second mystery is how Face/Off manages to be both totally ridiculous and totally awesome, but that may be a question that knows no answer.