Face/Off is an action movie unlike any other. Part psychological drama, part science fiction action blockbuster, it also happens to be John Woo’s finest Hollywood film to date and a movie worth watching again and again and again
The concept, as out-there as it may seem, is actually straightforward enough. FBI Special Agent Sean Archer (Travolta) must find the location of a rather large bomb his arch-nemesis Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) has hidden somewhere in L.A. A domestic terrorist for hire, Troy also happens to be the man responsible for killing Archer’s son, in an assassination attempt gone awry.
But after capturing Troy in a frankly bonkers opening chase that leaves his quarry in a coma, Archer is forced to literally swap faces with his enemy, via advanced surgical means, so he can obtain the information he needs from Troy’s incarcerated brother, Pollux.
Everything seems to be going to plan too until Castor wakes up and decides to take Archer’s discarded face for his own. From there, it’s absolute chaos and it’s brilliant from start to finish.
Now 20 years old but still feeling as fresh as the day it was first released, here are 20 awesome things you probably never knew about Face/Off.
Originally Face/Off was to pit Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger against each other, following decades of rivalry. However, when John Woo signed on as director, that plan was immediately scrapped with Woo feeling John Travolta and Nicolas Cage were better suited to the roles.
Mike Werb, who co-wrote the screenplay, got the idea for the film after a friend of his suffered a hang-gliding accident and underwent face surgery. In the surgery, they removed most of his skin, reconstructed the bone matter and then put his face back on. He may have taken a few liberties with the science from there.
When Joel Silver first optioned the script back in 1990, he and the film’s screenwriters envisioned pitting Michael Douglas against Harrison Ford. While that plan never came to fruition, Douglas did end up as executive producer on the project.
The very first script for the film presented to Woo was actually set in the future. Woo suggested changing it to the present day so that the more dramatic and psychological elements of the story came to the fore. Like the whole assassination of Archer’s son on a carousel by Troy in the film’s opening moments.
Cage took some convincing to play Castor Troy though. Initially, he turned down the role because he had no interest in playing a villain. It was only when Cage learned that he would be, in fact, playing the role of hero for much of the film, that he changed his mind.
Mark Wahlberg was also offered the role of Pollux Troy, Castor’s younger brother, but turned it down. In all fairness, he did end up playing Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights that same year. The part of Pollux eventually went to Alessandro Nivola.
Travolta and Cage actually spent two whole weeks together, prior to filming, just learning how to play each other. During that time, both actors agreed on things like gestures and vocal cadences that each could easily mimick.
Five of Castor Troy’s gold pistols were made for the film, with one of the guns sold to Planet Hollywood prior to the start of filming.
The prison scenes were difficult for those involved. Not only did Woo decide to recruit real-life ex-convicts as extras to add to the authenticity of the situation but the cold and damp conditions of the set resulted in several cast members contracting the flu, thus delaying filming.
If those magnetic boots from the Erewhon prison (Erewhon is Nowhere backwards) look familiar, it’s probably because they are the same ones worn by the Goombas on the Super Mario Bros. movie.
When Chris Bauer’s Dubov is attacked by guards during the prison riot, he hides behind a box marked “Ingen” – the name of the company that cloned dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and a crazy suggestion the two may exist in the same movie universe.
Nick Cassavetes shaved his head for the role of Dietrich Hassler, unbeknownst to Woo. When he presented the new look on set, the director loved it but when Gina Gershon suggested to doing the same for her character Sasha Hassler, Dietrich’s sister, Woo was less keen.
Much of Cassavetes’ performance in the final film as Dietrich was improvised, including all of his lines and that famous insenstuous kiss with Sasha. “There’s something so warped about them anyway,” Gershon said. “I think they just really love each other.”
Gershon landed the role of Sasha off the back of the Wachowskis’ Bound but she wasn’t first choice for the part. Julia Marguiles, who went on to star in The Good Wife, was offered the role initially but turned it down as she was working on ER at the time.
Studio bosses pushed for Cage, as Archer, to have a sex scene with Sasha but Woo felt it went against his character and the tone of the movie. Woo also pushed for Joan Allen to be cast as Archer’s wife, Eve, despite some hesitation from the studio.
The majority of the film’s stunts were done without the use of any digital effects at all but that hadn’t always been the plan. Originally, the production team had planned to use green screen in several key action sequences but, when it came time to film, they decided to go with a more authentic approach.
In one version of the script, Archer visited Castor’s mother’s house to hide from the police. Studio bosses envisioned either Elizabeth Taylor or even Jack Nicholson in drag, playing this part. Thankfully the scenes were cut altogether from the final script.
Castor Troy kills a total of 20 people in Face/Off. Archer, by comparison, kills four including both Pollux and Castor.
In one version of the film, Archer shoots Castor in the chest. When Castor tries to escape, Archer then shoots him in the leg. Evidently succumbing from his wounds, Castor then attempts to mutilate his face with the boat’s spinning propeller but dies before he can. Once again, this gruesome scene was ultimately switched out in favour of Castor attempting to mutilate Archer’s face with a knife.
Another alternate ending included a final scene where Sean Archer looks in the mirror only for wife Eve (Joan Allen) to gasp as the audience sees Castor’s face looking back at him. Ultimately, the ending was scrapped for being too ambiguous.