Face/Off is what I will call an unironically iconic film. Released 20 years ago, it is the epitome of John Woo’s directorial style; a flashy, hyper-stylized, over-the-top action film with tons of symbolism. This film is an onion; it has layers and with each one you peel, it brings you to tears with its brilliant stink. Of course, the film does not stink, it rocks. Its part sci-fi thriller, part body-invasion horror, part existential drama, and all no-non-sense action. Well, maybe a little non-sense. The film’s conceit is essentially “What if ‘know your enemy’ but Freaky Friday‘d?”
My view is that this film strips down the “I’m not me” neuroses of Total Recall, keeps your ass on Earth, but still keeps circling around the “I’m not me, I’m somebody else pretending to be me” theme.
The symbolism of John Woo is both obvious and subtle in Face/Off, a film which requires Nic Cage to pretend to be John Travolta (and then requires Cage as Travolta to pretend to be Cage as well as vice versa). Like I said, this film has layers, but I don’t want to discuss the whole film. I want to discuss a particular sequence of scenes from a section of the film.
Scene: Prison Torture and Full-Scale Riot
At this point in the film, it has been revealed to Travolta as Cage in prison that Cage’s character, Castor Troy woke up from his coma, forced the doctor who did the initial face-swap to do the same for him, killed everyone who knew, and visited Travolta as Cage to show off his “new” bod. So now, we have Cage as Travolta, FBI agent Sean Archer who is really Castor but is now free because he’s got Archer’s body, taunting Archer as Troy that he is doomed to his prison sentence so good luck with that. What a mind fuck. This is some Kafka-level shit that has just been dumped on Archer/Troy, I will call “Arroy” (pronounced “Uh-Roy” as in “Who boxes the irregular shorts?” “Uh…Roy?”).
Arroy wanders the prison in a morose demeanor, sullen and defeated. Wander is probably not apt. Clunks. He clunks around because he wears these big fucking heavy metal boots. Why? Because the prison has the greatest (ie: cruelest) method of keeping prisoners in place: magnetic locking boots. Prisoners get out of line? The guards have a tracking system that can detect which prisoners are causing problems and “lock them down,” rendering them immobile for easy beatings and then can be dragged away for further torture.
Well, in his newfound “I’m in my own prison in a prison” (LAYERS!) meditation, realizing that Troy/Archer (we’ll call “Trocher” and you can figure out on your own how to pronounce it) will get all the glory (he sees Trocher following the dismantling of a bomb Trocher himself planted to save the day on a giant video screen in the cafeteria – you know, for when watching prisoners bludgeon each other with trays isn’t enough entertainment), he gets the most radical idea: Stage a riot, get out of the prison!
This plan is most definitely not well thought-out because we only know as much about the prison as Arroy does, and what we know is this:
- Erewhon is in the middle of nowhere (get it?)
- The prison is semi-high-tech; it’s 90s high-tech without getting into 90s cyberpunk future-tech
- If prisoners act up, they get locked down and dragged off for high-voltage brain shocks
So, if the plan is to gain access to the torture room, where EST (electro-shock therapy) is doled out like free scoops of ice cream, then… how do we get out of there? How do we get out?
It involves a cigarette and Arroy dropping all pretense that he is Troy.
Arroy pesters a guard for a cigarette but is rebuffed, to which he employs the greatest “Oh yeah?” Retort with asking once more for a cigarette, this time, raising his voice and then sucker-punching the guard. Madness ensues, the seeds of revolt are planted, and watered with the cheers of other prisoners as Arroy emerges victorious, clutching a cigarette in his fist as he’s dragged off screaming with joy “I NEED A LIGHT!”
We next see Arroy dropped into the medical room, which is less than sanitary. There are porta-potties that are more sterile after baking in the hot sun all day at a chili cook-off. Now, what we’re able to surmise in a later scene, when Arroy finally does escape (I know, I’m jumping ahead) is that the prison must have been at one time an oil rig or a refueling station as it sits out in the middle of the ocean. So it was most likely existing real estate that was sold off and awarded a prison contract. Basically, Erewhon is a private prison, which would also explain the lack of care for milieu found in the guards. They’re most likely overworked but content with clocking in overtime if it means the ability to use excessive force with unchecked discretion.
Anyway, Arroy is waiting his turn in the shocking chair, currently occupied by a fellow prisoner by the name of Dubov. Now, Arroy had a confrontation his first day in prison with this man, as it was informed to Arroy that he had a threesome with both Dubov’s wife and his sister the night he was sent to prison. Suffice to say, if I saw the man who did such a deed to me, I’d probably not be happy to see him either. We see Dubov in the midst of convulsions, chunky yellow vomit (possible corn muffin stuffing was served for lunch) dripping out his mouth and down the front of his jumpsuit. Once the “doctors” (I truly doubt their credentials – I think these blokes flunked out, which would make them dentists, therefore the penitent for torture) are through with Dubov, they dump his ass to the side and plop Arroy in the hot seat, all giddy that they have the opportunity to now zap the brains of the one, the only Castor Troy. Little do they know, this isn’t Castory Troy.
As Arroy is placed with care in the chair and ready to be strapped down, he casually pulls out the cigarette from before (Chekov’s cigarette) and finally gets that light he had pleaded for. A guard lets off a remark of how those things will kill you, everyone laughs.
Now, they’ve got Arroy in the chair and are set to get him restrained when the most glaring bit of oversight for plot convenience is committed.
They remove his boots.
The goddamn magnetic boots.
The ones that can prevent prisoners from moving about the cabin!
Why do they need to be removed before thousands upon thousands of volts can be pumped into a man’s brain? Do the magnets (how do they work?) interfere in someway? Probably. There’s gotta be some sort of science reason. This movie kinda hand-waves a lot of “science” for the sake of telling a story, which is fine, but it raises more questions than one should have while watching shit get blown up.
Or in this case, people getting shot up.
Arroy, in a moment of self-actualization and desperation, makes a plea to Dubov. Atoning for another man’s sins, he speaks the absolute truth that he did not sleep with his wife or sister, that they love him and when they get out, they’ll be happy to see him. This scene requires no further thought or exploration. Arroy has only the thinnest of hope that his plan will work, which has up to this point. The clincher is on getting through to a dazed Dubov by making amends for the man he now lives as. As a former Catholic, there’s a tinge of the guilt one feels that crawls up the back of the throat and chokes you as admit your past misdeeds so as to relive your conscience and free your soul. So imagine having to apologize for someone else who is unrepentant in their actions. We know the real Castor Troy would most likely never feel guilty about such things. He’s more likely to celebrate it and throw a party. “Remember that time I fucked your wifeand your sister? FUCK YEAH!”
Somehow, some way, Arroy gets through to Dubov, who by force of movie magic, snaps out of his momentary lapse of consciousness, emboldened by the kind words of Arroy, and cracks a guard across the back of the skull with one of the boots (seriously, was there not a box or something they can place these in? I’m picturing there being a check-in like for skate rentals at a roller rink in the room but it had a sign “Out for lunch – back in 30” and they decided “Fuck it. Just leave ’em on the floor. They’re magnetic!”) and helps Arroy break free.
This is where shit gets all fuck-yeah!
Without breaking down everything to minutia, I will acknowledge that a lot of cool action scenes happen in the next three to five minutes, no less involving tons of gunfire, Arroy running ahead of said gunfire, and bodies hitting the floor. There’s a scene where Arroy finds a jar full of some sort of chemical, throws it up in the air, shots it, and it explodes in the path of a couple of guards and their gear catches fire. Why does a prison have flammable chemicals? Why were they in the same room as the zappy chair? What other torture methods were they experimenting with? Within the same scene, a guard is also shot in the foot and lets out the famous Wilhelm Scream. I’m sure getting shot in the foot is painful, this is a misuse of the Wilhelm Scream as the guard doesn’t even fall off the platform. He hangs onto the chain railing and just plops onto his ass. Just total misfire.
And this raises another quandary.
Archer as Troy is expected to live the standard prison life until he is able to acquire certain knowledge pertaining to a biological weapon that has been planted somewhere in Los Angeles. At some point he knows he will be released, but until then, he’s Castor Troy, not Sean Archer. He’s not an FBI agent but a high-profile criminal now high-profile prisoner. None of the guards know this. They just assume that he’s the real article because he looks exactly like Troy, sounds like Troy, and probably smells like him too. So as Arroy spends his days feeling his hope and sanity slip away, especially after he comes face to face with Troy as Archer (Trocher!), at what point does he decide to slide into full Castor Troy and carry out such behavior?
Let’s assume that before he was admitted to Erehwon, there was a full briefing on what exactly Arroy can be allowed to do in his time in prison. Of course, he would be expected to follow conduct and prison protocol, but they were probably willing to grant him certain exceptions since he’s not really Castor Troy and therefore, not really a prisoner. He’s undercover. Any actions he’d commit would probably be forgiven and forgotten upon his release. Granted, as long as he doesn’t cause any sort of grievous bodily harm. Or murder. Let’s not forget murder.
Arroy sets off a raucous riot, all in effort for him to escape the prison so that he can reach the mainland, get home, and find someone he can explain the situation to, and get everything sorted out. But he leaves casualties in his wake. There’s a body count. There’s blood. Assuming there’s a direct line he can follow from escape to safety, how does he answer for these actions? There’s a high cost that has accumulated with his desire to break out, to prove that he isn’t Castor Troy, that he is Sean Archer. But his actions reflect Troy. He becomes more of Troy in these minutes, sinking deeper into the identity that he thought he’d only have to embody for a week at most, but feels as though he’s condemned for an eternity.
He’s not only trying to break out of a literal prison, he’s trying to break out of the figurative prison he’s found himself in, and he’s a desperate man.
This begs another question: When he found out about the location of the bomb, did he request for a phone call? We know the guards know nothing of the plan, there’s no one else on the inside to help, but do they not provide certain amenities? Could Arroy not have said “Hey, I need to call my lawyer. Planning my appeal.” Even if the guards feel that to be bullshit, is there not a phone bank the prisoners can go to, reach the outside world once in a while? Or, maybe not, seeing at this is supposed to be a black-site prison; off the books, no record, no accountability. Huge flaw in this plan. The plan was Castor Troy’s brother, Pollux, was in this prison, we’ll plant Arroy in the prison to gain confidence and uncover the location of the bomb, then extract Arroy. Why not remove Pollux from the prison, bring him to the hospital where Arroy is and have them talk there? Reduce the number of deceptions, control the duplicity. Remove the risk.
Well, if that happened we’d have an hour long movie with little action and almost no subtext or commentary. We’d be denied the glory that is Nic Cage pretending to be John Travolta pretending to be Nic Cage as well as the brilliance that is John Travolta pretending to be Nic Cage pretending to be John Travolta. So, in order to have that, we need convoluted plots nested within convoluted plots. That’s how this movie works and the execution is excellent.
So we see Arroy throw aside his ethics as an officer of the law and agent of the government and tap into his id, which is represented by the guise of his enemy, the man who has haunted his life, his dreams, his psyche. The only way out of a corrupt system is to play by their rules, which is essentially that there are no rules.
Arroy manages to escape the prison-rig, making a great leap from a platform to the ocean below, magically swimming below the surface a great distance to avoid the eyes of police helicopters.
There’s a lot to unpack from this part of the film, but the main conceit, the thesis is the desperation of man. What is someone willing to do when they are pushed beyond their limits? What actions are you capable of? How do you shower in this prison when you’re practically expected to wear those magnetic boots all the time, except for torture time? How do you change out of the jumpsuit? How long can one hold their breath underwater and how far did Arroy have to swim to reach the coast? Why was there not a guard on the comatose Troy 24/7?
These are the questions that have no satisfiable answers.