faceoff

‘Face/Off’ Was the Last Original Idea in Hollywood

The script, the acting, the sheer insanity — we'll never reach those heights again

It’s difficult, in this joyless era, to remember what the heady zenith of the 1990s blockbuster felt like. It was a time before the dour politics implanted by the stolen 2000 election, and a year later, 9/11. A problem like “franchise fatigue” was hardly imaginable. You could make a $24 million profit on a movie about a golden retriever playing basketball. It might have been a monoculture, and one that failed every test of representation and equality, but nevertheless, you got the sense that gatekeepers would occasionally let something wild into the studio system. And even compared to the gonzo blend of action and sci-fi that dominated the latter half of the decade (Men in Black, The Matrix, etc.), Face/Off was one of the wildest concepts out there.

The 1997 cult-classic film is now slated for a reboot, a decision that flies in face(s) of the audacious original. The whole point of Face/Off was that no one could expect to top it, and I’d argue that nobody really did. Many would credit the hard-boiled style of Hong Kong director John Woo, who turned it into his biggest stateside triumph, or the 200-percent-committed performances from genuine maniacs Nicolas Cage and John Travolta. Essential ingredients, of course, but as a writer I’m naturally inclined to cast an eye at the team behind the screenplay, Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, a pair unjustly overlooked even when the New Yorker publishes coverage on a goofy Shakespeare-in-the-park adaptation of their beloved work.

The Twitter proposals for how to elevate a remake are funny if you’re a fan of the movie, but they also speak to the unbeatable greatness of Werb and Colleary’s vision, and how incredible it was that they got the thing made. Neither replied to a request for comment, but lore has it that they were pitching the screenplay as early as 1990, and that various co-stars who were either considered for (or briefly attached to) the project included: Arnold Schwarzenegger/Sylvester Stallone, Michael Douglas/Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis/Alec Baldwin, Al Pacino/Robert De Niro and Jean-Claude Van Damme/Steven Seagal.

If you go by IMDb trivia, Werb and Colleary first conceived of the story as taking place in the near future, and mainly in the floating prison that wound up the focus of a shorter escape setpiece in the final product. But the true hook and logline of Face/Off — FBI agent has surgeons replace his own face with that of the comatose terrorist nemesis who killed his son in order to glean intel from said terrorist’s twin brother, only to have the terrorist wake up, take the good guy’s available face, and kill everyone who knows of the switch — was presumably there from the beginning.

And you know? It fucking slays. 

Allegedly, Werb gathered the idea of a face-swap from a friend who underwent significant facial reconstruction after a hang-gliding accident. I find it significant, though, that he got his break in Hollywood by writing the screenplay for the 1994 Jim Carrey comedy The Mask, itself an unapologetically bizarre proposition involving the human visage. Was he influenced by the questions this movie raised, however spuriously, regarding performances of identity and the power of disguise? Did the comedic possibilities of facial transformation open the door to dramatic parallels? And are the zany non-sequiturs for Carrey’s green, unbridled, cartoonish alter-ego a clue to the memorably, even uniquely weird dialogue of Face/Off?

A few choice samples: “If you dress like Halloween, ghouls will try to get in your pants,” “Hey Sean, how’s your dead son?,” “When we put this thing to bed, you can brand the Fourth Amendment on my butt,” “The man you think is your husband is not your husband,” “If I were to let you suck my tongue, would you be grateful?” and the pièce de résistance, “l’d like to take his… his face… off.”  

Again, the casting of Travolta and Cage is brilliant, seizing both actors at perfect moments: Travolta, a couple years after his comeback with Pulp Fiction, relishing the chance to ham it up as a psycho villain, and Cage, completing the monumental 1990s action “trilogy” that includes The Rock and Con Air, reminding us of his Oscar-worthy talent for projecting inner turmoil.

Yet it’s the raw premise of inviting two scene-chewing actors to trade roles (in order to sell an otherwise unbelievable plot) that remains most astounding. Now that we have extended universes of bankable pre-existing intellectual property, loaded with expensive and unsatisfying CGI, nothing that radically simple and that viscerally effective, can ever happen again. And so, when screenwriter Oren Uziel sets out to develop the next chapter of this story, he will be at a severe disadvantage, trying to put a new twist on this irreducible formula — one that feels timeless while every last bit of Disney necromancy feels immediately dated. To reboot Face/Off is to reinvent the wheel.

It’s not that you can’t force Hollywood to accept an original idea anymore. Newer production companies like A24 and Blumhouse have championed films from genre-busting auteurs; judging by the latter’s Get Out and Us, which both deal in doppelgängers and body-swapping, you might guess that writer/director Jordan Peele has a fondness for Face/Off, too. But the days of a major studio giving an international director complete creative control and an $80 million budget to realize the most outlandish, high-octane fever dream that came across their desks? Those are over.

With movie ticket sales down and a glut of streaming entertainment in the mix, safer choices make the most sense, whether that means making risky films on the cheap or pouring all resources into a seventh sequel of your tentpole saga. Over 20-plus years, we’ve been waiting for a film as batshit as the crime thriller where the hero and antagonist are each stuck wearing the other guy’s face, the actors inhabiting themselves, turning cinema inside-out.  

People say there’s always room for improvement, but sometimes I’m not so sure.