John Woo’s Face/Off epitomizes the 1990s action movie with its slow motion, fluidly choreographed set pieces, oodles of gunplay with consequent body count interspersed with moments of melodrama and outlandish dialog; stylish though cheesy action fare in the days before shakycam and two tone color filters, and Nicholas Cage was reasonably entertaining.

At the time, the movie required a major suspension of disbelief. Nowadays, full body transformations and face transplants can deliver staggering results. Not an infomercial. Check this out. My major suspensions of disbelief are around the rapid healing required for the procedure, and the ability of surgeons to conveniently figure it how to do it in a very short time in the resolution, perhaps even before the resolution apparently. I digress.

Anyway, face transplanting sets up the central emotional and dramatic tension of the plot – – whether the good man can ‘act’ bad enough without morally compromising himself, and if the bad man can act good enough without freaking out the good guy’s family and colleagues.

Who will be found out first? Are the stakes higher for the good man and his family? I’m stating the obvious to say that I think we easily and naturally gravitate towards the plight of the good guy. He’s the hero with the most to gain and the most to lose; his family stand to lose a good man. Right?

The thing is, when Castor Troy, the bad boy, pretending to be Sean Archer shows up, the family actually seems to prefer bad boy Archer – the bad man trying to be good. He’s got just enough bad to be exciting because, apparently, good guy Archer is boring.

Boring in bed.

Too strict a dad.

He’s committed.

He’s good.

But boring.

Even though he’s one of the top agents, the epitome of law and order, his law enforcement buddies prefer the bad boy version of Archer. It’s not enough to be good, you need to be fun and exude style.

The bad boy Archer – their arch nemesis Troy – is heaps cooler.

But deep down, Troy’s version of fun is pretty extreme. He lives a ‘high’ life, as a leader of a high class crime gang. Referring to the hitherto unresolved rivalry between the two, he says “Isn’t this religious? The eternal battle between good and evil.”. Although there is a sense of dualism here, he mocks the idea that life is any kind of moral theatre in which the battle of good and evil is being played out. In the film’s opening moments the villain Castor Troy mocks the song Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah.

The only sacred things are his super cool gold-plated guns. Not really surprising. This is a John Woo film after all.

And Archer, says Troy, is not having fun because of his inability to let go of his grief and his desire for justice that has driven us all to this thoroughly ridiculous situation involving a whole lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t have been if it weren’t for Archer’s deep fatherly impulse for justice for his family.

While the primary action is this whole cat-and-mouse game, the main perspective of the film is Archer’s family. For a few days Mrs Archer, her family and the FBI unwittingly buy something of Troy’s facade, suggesting that our feelings, desires and even our senses can blind us to the truth and the good.

They like how this Archer looks and behaves, but they don’t know he’s really rotten to the core of his being.

And when it comes to the crunch, Archer’s daughter shoots her dad because she can’t tell he is a villain. Meanwhile the real Archer is trying to prove himself to her by appealing to his behaviour and his actions while wearing the other guys face and speaking his voice. Who is really behind that face? A good guy gone bad or a bad boy trying to be good?

Yes, images are deceiving.

In the end, Face/Off all works out rather happily – Mrs Archer discovers the truth about her fake husband, Mr Archer gets his face back, and young boy Adam gets a new and better dad and Archer a new son. If there’s a lesson to be had here it is that it’s better to live an ordinary life that is upright and good rather than a fun, exciting, superficial one that ends in destruction.

Not bad.

And a message all the more believable if being bada$$ didn’t seem to be so much apparent fun.

The thing is that we, like Mrs Archer, enjoy the escapist entertaining fare that for a little while delights us through its spectacular use of image, fantasy and this is exactly what Face/Off plays on. Face/Off works because it feels in some way exciting and fun to be just a little bad for a little while, especially when it also looks good.

Woo’s film stands in stark contrast to the patrotic, political and paranoid action cinema that followed in which terrorists in movies are no longer ‘fun’. Some of the biggest films of the following decade, like The Dark Knight for example challenge deeply held notions of morality and justice in the face of crime and terror, while the Bourne franchise reflects on the surveillance state.

But this is why I reckon the movie epitomizes all that came before it. A fitting end to a decade that brought so many big budget blockbusters. John Woo takes that one aspect of the 90s action movie genre and makes a film about it, chock full of everything that the 90s action movie was all about – Good guys saving the world from nasty outrageous bad guys in thrilling chases and amazing acts. Delighting in the ridiculous chaos. The one-liners. Yes, this is why you called.

Such is the power of the visual image to make a life & death battle look good and be entertaining. You wouldn’t want that in real life, but at the movies, it’s all good fun.

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