A few weeks ago, someone wrote this article acknowledging the 20th anniversary of the 1997 John Woo action film Face/Off, everyone's favorite face swapping movie starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. Which is fine. But then the author offers up that this might be one of the best action films of all time, which it abso-goddamn-lutely ain't. First off, MIGHT BE? The author isn't even committed to their own feeble premise here. And that makes them a FUCKING COWARD.
My name is Dustin Meadows, and I fucking love action movies. I can confidently tell you that Face/Off is nowhere near in the running for best action movie of all time. It's not even the best action movie of 1997, a year that gave us fun action films like The Fifth Element, Starship Troopers, and Con Air. Face/Off isn't even the best action film directed by John Woo that stars John Travolta, because that goes to the mercifully shorter Broken Arrow. Face/Off is an overly long 140 minutes, and with very few exceptions, no movie (action or otherwise) should ever clock in that far north of the two hour mark. And if you're an action movie running that long, you better be goddamn Die Hard or Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
The article pontificates on the differences between the action movies of then and now, by lamenting a simpler time when action movies were non-stop explosions, shootouts and choreographed fight scenes without any kind of nuance or artistic leanings thrown in the mix, incorrectly labeling Face/Off as a pure breed of the former in that comparison. That's also complete horseshit, because this movie is lousy with dramatic interludes and pointless scenes that attempt to build tension, but rarely in a meaningful way.
This movie is 2 hours and 20 minutes long. There are five total action set pieces throughout the film-the opening airport/hangar chase and shootout, the prison escape, the warehouse raid, the funeral/Mexican stand-off, and the boat chase finale. That's roughly one action sequence every half hour, which, all told, maybe makes up for 40 of the 140 minutes of the film. That's about 28% of the movie that's action sequences, which seems pretty damn light to me. I can handle action sequences being spread out if the in-between moments are really well done or bring something amazing to the table, but that's not the case with Face/Off. Everything in between those scenes is a lot of introspection and occasional quipping. Die Hard is basically the bar that I measure all action movies against, and there are more action sequences in that movie, which largely takes place in a single location and still has a shorter run time than Face/Off.
In addition to these problems, the finale is a boat chase. With the lone exception of Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, I don't think I've ever given a fuck about a boat chase in an action/adventure movie. Need proof of my point? A little movie called Speed II: Cruise Control, which takes place entirely on a fucking boat and also is terrible and slow and boring as shit. Almost the entire movie is a boat chase. Striking Distance, a largely ignored thriller starring Bruce Willis from the early 90s, tanked financially and critically. It's a movie about boat cops solving murders on a river? Were boats to blame for the film's lack of success? Well, I just can't say. But I'm sure it didn't help.
This final boat chase in Face/Off is the most underwhelming and unimpressive of the film's action sequences. You've gotta find something really special to make a boat chase interesting and fun to watch, and most movies fail to do it. That's why I typically don't give a shit about boat chases in films, aside from the previously mentioned Indiana Jones movie.
(You can hear a lot more of my dumb opinions on this episode of my old podcast, How Have You Not Seen This?)
Going back to the previous point about the underwhelming finale of Face/Off, this is a common problem in action films, particularly contemporary ones, in which the final action sequence can't even hold a candle to the more impressive action set pieces that came before. The airport sequence in Captain America: Civil War is so grand in scale and fun to watch, that even though the dramatic beats of the film's final handicap match between Captain America and Winter Soldier against Iron Man are more important to the story, the action in the final battle doesn't come as close to the airport fight. Wonder Woman's CGI clusterfuck fight against Ares from the film of the same name is nowhere near as impressive as the sequence in which Wonder Woman storms across enemy lines to take out an entire battalion of German soldiers. Kingsman: The Secret Service culminates in an extended gunfight/chase sequence/hand-to-hand combat between parkour James Bond type Eggsy and the knife-legged Gazelle, which is a great string of action, but again, comes nowhere near to the sheer brutality and coolness of the second act's church sequence where Colin Firth turns in an against-type performance as a badass who completely beats the shit out of a church full of Westboro Baptist types. While John Wick: Chapter 2 learned from its predecessor and stepped everything up, the finale of the first entry, John Wick, isn't as good as the bath house shootout or the botched home assassination attempt that occur earlier in the film.
The Expendables trilogy, on paper, is a brilliant idea, assembling an exciting ensemble of action stars from various eras in R-rated violent fun. While the series has its share of missteps, the trilogy at least understands that you always save your best for last when it comes to the action sequences.
The third act of Face/Off phones it in harder than any action movie has ever phoned in a third act, and is one of the many contributing factors that takes this film out of the running as a serious contender for best action film of all time. We get an amazing shootout during the warehouse raid, a heated and dramatic personal exchange between John Travolta's Castor Troy and Nicolas Cage's Sean Archer, and the emotional ending when Castor sees brother Pollux Troy knocked to his death by his nemesis, the man wearing his (Castor's) own face. Naturally Castor/Archer doubles down, abusing his power as a senior agent of the FBI to increase the manhunt for Archer/Castor, resulting in a climactic and explosive final battle between good and evil and giving us, without a doubt, the best action set piece of the entire film.
At least that's what should've happened. Instead we're treated to a third act that just kind of stumbles its way into a confrontation that feels empty and cheap, ultimately giving way to an uninteresting boat chase and finally fumbling the ball into the end zone as Archer/Castor harpoons the man he's spent his entire life chasing, avenging the murder of his son and then getting a brand new son in the process from Gina Gershon, because sure, why the fuck not?
Remember, I say all of this as someone who owns and enjoys the movie Face/Off. It's okay to be critical of shit you like, because frankly, sometimes we deserve better than what we get. Anyway, if you need me, I'll be busy working on my Face/Off reboot starring Wesley Snipes as Sean Archer and Terry Crews as Castor Troy.