The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

A Face/Off Symposium

Written by: The CinCitizens

A Critical Guide from The World’s Foremost Face/Off Experts

The Opening Face-(/)Off

by Rob van Winkle

Having dusted off my VHS copy of this movie, I steeled myself to watch it when I was besieged by a sea of thoughts and reminisces. Therefore, I thought I’d start our correspondence on the film by recounting exactly what sticks out in my head about it right now, BEFORE my 2005 viewing.


 The first thing that jumps out at me is how extremely excited I was to see this movie. John Travolta was still riding super high from his post-Pulp Fiction renaissance, and Nicholas Cage had just proven himself a capable action star in The Rock, which had come out the year before. The concept was just bizarre enough for it to seem fresh, and the previews seemed to point to a movie where the psychological questions of who we are and how well we know our loved ones would be rivaled only by how much ass would be kicked all over the screen. I can also clearly remember how much more augmented my excitement for this movie was after my failed first attempt to see it (it was sold out), when, so as not to go home without having done anything that night, I sat in between a woman I was not dating, and a gay man, to watch My Best Friend’s Wedding. It could only get better from there.

Having said all this, I can also distinctly remember some skepticism directed at the stars. I recall an article that came out before the release, where the two stars talked about how happy they were to be working with each other. Travolta raved about the sneak peek he had seen of Cage’s work on his just completed Con Air (!), and Cage said that, when he saw the dailies of Travolta’s work in the opening scene, where Castor Troy kills his kids, Cage called him up to tell him that he wept. This is not made up. He wept. This is exactly the kind of disingenuous, theater-major bullshit that I got out of the field to avoid. I don’t need my action stars acting like they’ve just gotten out of a hug circle after a staged reading of Steel Magnolias.

Okay…here are some actual movie moments that stick out in my head:

1. The “If I let you suck my tongue…” moment. First, that line was so patently absurd, that the writer should have been shot. Second … it WORKED!? Come on. It was NICHOLAS CAGE, for God’s sake.

2. Cage’s scene where, now acting as Travolta acting like Castor Troy, he gets into the jail fight. What stands out for me was the part where he kept shouting “I’m Castor Troy!” while trying not to cry. This was, I remember, a classic example of high school diva overacting. Capital A “Actors” do shit like this all the time, and think they look brilliant. However, Cage shows clearly in this scene why these instincts need to be suppressed; they are over-emotive mannerisms that make you look like a douchebag onstage.

  1. John Travolta’s thing where he kept touching people’s faces, like it was supposed to be endearing. Personally, if my dad did that to me, I’d knee him in the balls and I wouldn’t stop running until I was in another state.

  2. Dominique Swain – What I remember most about her, if I’m being perfectly honest, is that she was one of those chicks that I knew I was supposed to find hot … but just sort of … didn’t. I mean I guess I’d fuck her … but I never once imagined doing it.

  3. Lots of bullets flying that never hit their intended targets. Also, a scene in a church, and a boat scene that I remember only for how improbable it was.

So, that’s it for me, I think. Lance?

What’s in a name?
By Lance Carmichael

I remember being almost uncontrollably excited to see this movie when it came out, too. Not only did it have a post-Pulp Fiction, pre-Battlefield Earth John Travolta in it, but Nicolas Coppola Cage, as well. I remember the preview for ConAir being the height of Nic Cage mania — he just earned his indie and Oscar stripes in Leaving Las Vegas and his action stripes in The Rock. This guy seemed capable of anything.


Actually, forget Face/Off. Let’s dwell for a moment on how excited we all were for ConAir: Cage fresh off his Leaving Las Vegas career makeover, Steve Buscemi a year after Fargo, Ving Rhames straight outta Pulp Fiction, Mykelti Williamson fresh out of Forest Gump (okay, maybe that one’s a reach), John Cusack right in the middle of his comeback (ConAir immediately followed his reemergence with serviceable movies Bullets Over Broadway, City Hall and Grosse Point Blank), and John Malkovich playing a villain named Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom. Plus, although it wasn’t cool at the time, apparently Dave Chappelle was in it.


From the director of … The General’s … Tits ..?
I hate sucking.


My friends and I only recognized ConAir’s inherent shitiness when the hype of that amazing cast finally wore off a few years later when most of the movie’s stars went on to lucrative careers making shit. ConAir was a singularity of hot actors beginning the slide into cinematic diarrhea, but it happens on less memorable scales time and time again: an actor nails a great part in a great movie, we all expect go on to have Johnny Depp’s career — movie after movie of quality and distinction — and yet, inevitably, they start making movie after movie of crappiness and shititude. And yet we still get excited over the next promising actor and expect them to choose roles like Johnny Depp. Let’s call this the ConAir-Phenomenon Phenomenon: the first in a long line of shitty movies for a hot actor, named after both ConAir and Phenomenon. It’s slightly different from “Jumping The Shark,” because we don’t realize that the actor’s lost to us forever until after the fact. When you see Fonzie waterskiing over a shark, you know the Happy Days are over the moment it happens. But only the wisest and most hard-hearted can recognize when the ConAir-Phenomenon Phenomenon has been reached while it’s happening. The rest of us can only see it in retrospect. (I’m usually too optimistic to have this kind of vision, but I’m going to throw optimism to the wind and posit that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou will be come to be known as Wes Anderson’s ConAir in the future.)


Anyway, so because none but the wisest recognized the dire harbinger of shit that ConAir was at the time, Cage still had powerful momentum going into Face/Off. Plus, this was only John Woo’s second American movie. I had only recently discovered Woo’s amazing Chow Yun Fat action movies from Hong Kong, and hadn’t yet realized that he came to Hollywood to exclusively make shitty movies. The thinking went that the workmanlike action plot of Broken Arrow obviously constricted Woo’s creative imagination; the ridiculous, pulpy duality-of-man plot of Face/Off seemed like the perfect vehicle for him to finally stretch his wings on a Hollywood budget.




This is what happens when you give me star power. SHAME on you.



Face/Off had it all going for it.


Man, I was stoked.


I probably haven’t re-watched Face/Off in five years. Here are some moments that stick out in my head:


1. The names. John Travolta plays “Sean Archer.” Nicolas Coppola Cage plays “Castor Troy.” His brother’s name is “Pollux Troy.” These are references to classical mythology that screenwriters Mike Werb and Michael Colleary (Darkman III: Die, Darkman, Die; Tekken: The Movie) apparently just couldn’t resist. Sean Archer is a cheesy enough name for a good guy cop, following in the proud tradition of “Mike Hammer”, “Magnum P.I.,” and “Tony Baretta” of cops named after weapons. But Castor Troy? I can’t decide if that’s the best movie name ever, or the worst.


Just listen to the names of the characters Cage has played since he signed his soul away to Jerry Bruckheimer:


• Dr. Stanley Goodspeed
• Cameron Poe
• Castor Troy
• Randall “Memphis” Raines


How can you ever beat that? These names sound like they were made up by an aspiring 17-year old action screenwriter taking his first digital video class. Travolta’s character’s names don’t even come close to Cage’s. The only ones that can even be put in the same ballpark are “Vincent Vega” and Battlefield Earth’s “Terl.” You have to go back all the wayto the beginning of his career as “Vinny Barbarino” of the Sweathogs to find one that can compete on Dr. Stanley Goodspeed’s level.


2. The Preview. The one where John Travolta sits under a spotlight in a dark room and talks pensively about the evil brilliance of master criminal Castor Troy as the camera tracks around him, finally emerging from his back to reveal the face of … Nicolas Cage saying “I must become him!” … in Travolta’s voice! Maybe even better than the ConAir preview. Whoever was doing Bruckheimer’s previews back then is the real unsung genius of 90s cinema.


3. The scene after Nicolas Cage, now inhabited by the soul of Sean Archer, escapes prison to freedom. He goes to his trendy terrorist apartment and parties with Gina Gershon and his shady terrorist friends. One of these friends, a bald, scary-looking guy, encourages Cage to do drugs with him. Archer, a straight-arrow law enforcement guy, almost blows his cover when he pretends he’s excited to do drugs and yells “Ya drug dealer!” in an attempt to compliment his scary bad guy friend in authentic criminal


4. The uncomfortableness of watching Travolta, inhabited by the spirit of horndog Castor Troy, pretend to be attracted to Archer’s wife, played by the sexbomb of American cinema … Joan Allen. Allen was hot off of Nixon and The Ice Storm when she did Face/Off, and Hollywood had yet to realize that her range stretched from “Icy Bitch” to “Frosty Bitch.” In anything outside that, she’s totally lost. Hollwyood casting agents: when casting MILFs, it’s best not to go with someone who’s career was made because of her resemblance to Pat Nixon.


5. That fucking opening black-and-white flashback scene (the one that apparently made Cage cry) where Archer is laughing and smiling with his son on a carousel, and Castor Troy, disguised behind a mustache and aiming a sniper rifle for Archer, accidentally kills the kid by shooting him through Archer’s chest. Woo then subjects us to what feels like a half hour of slow motion Travolta weeping over the boy’s body.




Don’t you hate it when movies ask you to feel heart-breaking sadness and sympathy for two characters in their first scene? We’ve never met them before! Why should we care if they’re assassinated or not? Woo’s slow-motion, “heartwarming” shots of Travolta and the little moppet were so unbearable that everyone’s GLAD Troy shoots the kid, just so we won’t have to sit through any more scenes of Travolta gazing moonily at his flesh-and-blood. Then again, maybe by making us like arch-villain Troy in this scene of ultimate dastardliness, Woo is making some sort of textured, complicated statement about good and evil.



Here she is, fellas! Line up now!

Or maybe he just shouldn’t direct kids.




• Despite Cage’s recent Oscar, and despite Travolta just making Phenomenon and Michael back-to-back, Travolta got top billing in Face/Off. If Face/Off were made today, who do you think would get top billing?


• If you were assigned to make a Face/Off remake, who would you cast as your two leads? More importantly, what names would you come up with to top Sean Archer and Castor Troy?


• If you could magically erase one person’s career since Face/Off from the collective memory of humanity, who would you pick: John Travolta, Nicolas Coppola Cage or Joan Allen?


• What would you do if you woke up tomorrow morning with Travolta’s face? How would you shave your chin without his specialized razors?


Obscure References


A Genius Makes


By Rob van Winkle

Excellent memories, all. First of all, I can tell you that Castor and Pollux, in Greek mythology, were brother who had something to do with the Trojan War. Thus, naming a set of brothers “Castor and Pollux Troy” is the height of cleverness and erudition, except for the fact that it’s not. Face/Off has no resemblance whatsoever to the stories of classical Greece, and the characters of Castor and Pollux were NOT villains. I think they were the kids who came from that whole swan sex scene, and one of them was really good with horses, or something similar. To lend their names to two sibling evildoers in an otherwise mindless action movie only serves to make that the single most memorable part, if only for how gay it sounds. The whole thing reeks of a writer trying to prove how smart he is by throwing something all historical and obscure into his script. He could just as easily named those characters “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Dane.” It would have made just as much sense.


In fact, I want to create a phenomenon of my own: “The Whitey Effect” is now what I am calling the thing in movies where characters are given names that are so jarring that it throws the whole movie into question. It is named in honor Laurence Fishburne’s character in Mystic River. The first time Kevin Bacon called him “Whitey,” I was so fucked up about it that I almost couldn’t concentrate on the story. Why the hell would he have that name? Fraternity nickname that stuck? Ironic sociological statement made by two friends/police officers about a city with a stories and unfortunate heritage of racism? Homage to C. Thomas Howell’s work in Soul Man? I mean, even if that character was named the same thing in the book (he was), by casting Laurence Fishburne in that role, you have to either change it out of courtesy, or come up with a plausible origin story. To just leave it be, as they did, struck me then and now as stupid, and irresponsible.


And please let me expound for a bit on your thoughts regarding Travolta (as Castor Troy)’s seduction of Sean Archer’s wife. I have to say, in all honesty, that even if all that happened, in the exact same way, to me, I don’t know if I’d be cool with the fact that my wife had ABSOLUTELY no idea that it had happened. I mean, they slept next to each other every single night for years. They’ve seen each other naked thousands of times. They almost certainly know each other’s tiniest little mannerisms. Nothing would ring a bell? At all? And isn’t it fortunate that Sean Archer and Castor Troy perform exactly the same in bed, with equipment that happens to have the exact same proportions! Archer’s wife is either an idiot, or a slut. Never mind the whole face thing.



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Anyway, let me get to your questions:




1. If Face/Off were made today, with the same cast, you are right – Nicholas Cage would certainly get top billing. I think that both actors are universally considered to be pretty bad, but Cage’s profile has stayed almost exponentially higher than Travolta’s. For example, Travolta has found himself in movies you barely remember over the past few years (The Punisher, and Lucky Numbers, to name a few), while Cage still manages to land plum roles that he sometimes manages not to screw up (Adaptation and National Treasure spring to mind). And, since you mentioned it, Battlefield Earth is SO BAD, John-John should be banished from top billing ever again, or at least until his billion-year contract with the church of Scientology runs out.

2. For a remake, I will defer on the question of casting to you, but I WILL name the characters: Instead of Sean Archer, I’d name the hero David Saber. It just sounds heroic to me, without degenerating into a name that anyone would ever actually have. Castor and Pollux Troy is tougher, but in order to do it justice AND include the Whitey Effect, I will go with either Ahab and Ishmael Seaman, or Phileas and Passepartout Verne, whichever would get me, as the writer, more chicks.


3. If I could erase one of those actors’ careers from the slate, I would have to go with Cage. Despite bashing on Travolta as much as I have, the fact is that he has been a walking punchline for many more years than he has been a top-billed star. There is just so much to mock, from his face, to his voice, his acting, and even his religion. I couldn’t take that away from the world.


Joan Allen did some good work on stage before she became the object of no one’s affection, and since she’s a chick, I’d just as soon offer her a pass.


Cage, however is a special case. He is either the worst actor to give good performances, or the best performer ever to suck hard about 90% of the time. The little tics he adds as “color” to his characters always come off as spastic, and you can never forget that he is acting, while fully aware how great a job he feels he’s doing. Also, The fact that he was grandfathered into the business really gets to me; he didn’t even “get lucky” to make it. He just asked around at a family mixer. Away with him.


4. If I woke up with Travolta’s face tomorrow, I would scrunch it up in front of the mirror, in that famous expression of “negative emotion” that he does so well in everything. Then I would shoot myself.





And now, a few questions for you:




1. If you were able to switch faces with any one person, who would it be, and for what purpose? Part two: how would your answer change if you weren’t allowed to do it solely for the purposes of banging a chick?


2. If you were to write a movie that critics all ended up calling “The Face/Off for the next generation,” what absurd medical impossibility would you have had your characters undergo for the sake of cinematic intrigue and ass-kicking?


3. If Cage and Travolta were to team up for a movie today, for release in the summer of 2007 (ten years after Face/Off), what might it be? What roles would they play?