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Terrible Movies for Troubled Times: John Woo’s compulsively watchable Face/Off

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Is it terribly great or greatly terrible? A controversial entry into the pantheon of wonderfully good bad movies.

Nicolas Cage And John Travolta In ‘Face Off’
You can’t have a John Woo movie without a Mexican Stand-off. Nicholas Cage and John Travolta in Face/Off (1997)
Photo By Getty Images

John Woo set the world on fire with his contributions to Hong Kong cinema — great characterizations, inverting the good cop-bad guy paradigm, and of course, his chaotic action sequences hallmarked by his two-handgun-per-fighter “gun fu” — and it made it inevitable he would come to Hollywood.

Equally inevitable was the big studio response to the filmmaker. They hired the guy who had made The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992), but limited his creative freedom. The hamstrung director made Hard Target (1993) and Broken Arrow (1996), with unsatisfactory results for all involved, and then along came a little script called Face/Off.

Originally set in the future—and in a floating prison—John Woo rejected the project unless an extensive rewrite was done. The project, written by UCLA Film grads Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, was sold to Warner Bros. in 1990.

At its heart was a true story—screenwriter Werb had a good friend who had been in a hang glider accident. Surgeons essentially removed the man’s face to fix the mass of broken bone underneath, then reattached his face. Werb, taken with this idea, built their screenplay off of that, and was happy enough to set the story in the present and essentially John Woo-up the plot.

With the changes made, John Woo said yes and got to work.

A cavalcade of stars were considered, most famously Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. The screenwriters were hoping for Michael Douglas and Harrison Ford, but in the end Woo went all in on Nicholas Cage and John Travolta.

With each possible iteration of casting, you have a different variation of the kind of terribly great/greatly terrible you were going to get. Woo undoubtedly chose the most entertaining option on offer when he selected Cage and Travolta. Nicholas Cage, who once had a tooth pulled without novocaine on camera to add realism to his role, initially balked at playing Castor Troy, as he didn’t want to play a villain. When it was explained he would be portraying the hero for the majority of the film, he accepted.

After the manner of terrible movies, Face/Off has some pretty ridiculous character names. Castor and Pollux are named after brothers from Greek mythology, hence the “Troy” for their surname. The leads are given over-the-top dialogue and set free to chew the scenery. The line, “The eternal battle between good and evil, saint and sinners—but you’re still not having any FUN!” jumps to mind.

However, what is legitimately great about Face/Off is Woo’s dedication to practical effects. Originally, the film was set to have a big digital effects budget. Woo, finally set free from studio infringement, got to shoot the movie his way, and the result is a lot of action done the old fashioned way—with good, hard work. Even the biggest spectacles are real. When the plane is destroyed, they were really destroying a plne. Obviously, they only had one take, and so 13 cameras were set up to capture the moment from multiple angles.

Interestingly, despite Woo’s love of gunplay, he himself has never fired a gun. He has stated he liked the look of a Beretta and its 17 round capacity. The sound of the bullets creates a rhythm like a drumbeat, and the Beretta keeps the music going longer.

While Woo was methodical in his approach to directing, he also allowed his actors a lot of leeway. A good bit of dialogue is ad libbed, and the infamous incestuous kiss was the idea of Gina Gershon and Nick Cassavetes.

Face/Off was nominated for an Academy Award, for Sound Effects Editing. It also won Best Action Sequence at the MTV Movie Awards, for the boat chase scene at the end. Including second unit photography, it took four weeks to film the chase scene.

Prior to writing this, I took an informal online poll asking if Face/Off was a terrible movie. 40 people replied, and the responses were dead even. 20 vehemently stated it was profoundly terrible, 20 said they loved it (but only 2 of those also maintained it was a great movie). So where do you weigh in on Face/Off? Is it a terrible movie or no?