Nicolas Cage in: Face/Off


Released in 1997 ▪ Review posted October 27, 2013

“…[A] riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

Winston Churchill

Before there was Inception, there was Face/Off. Louder, stupider, more prone to explosions: Face/Off. To be honest, I never thought Inception could be a dumb movie until I re-examined Face/Off. It’s entertaining, I’ll give it that, but it’s also troubled. There’s a whole lot wrong with it. However, I’m not here to parse a John Woo film. I write with a singular purpose: to determine whether Nicolas Cage is a good actor. In Face/Off, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Hear me out. If you think Julie Andrews deserved an Oscar nomination for Victor/Victoria, there is no way you can claim that Nic Cage does a bad job in Face/Off. If you think Yentl was good, I pity you, and also you should appreciate Face/Off. Nicolas Cage has to play John Travolta doing his best impression of Nicolas Cage. That is a really hard acting feat to pull off. As if just being John Travolta weren’t already hard enough.

Nic finally gets to be the bad guy for the first twenty minutes of this movie, and it is glorious. The script calls for him to dress as a priest and publicly molest someone. The script has him headbanging to choral music. The script calls for Nic to clarify his character’s thought by asking, “If I were to let you suck my tongue, would you be grateful?” Nic attacks these opportunities and displays a great professional commitment. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that’s some good damn acting.

In Face/Off, Cage finally confirms what I’ve started to suspect: he is fully aware of what “Nicolas Cage” is. I bet he watches the dailies for every movie he’s in. There is no way this man is unaware of exactly what he’s doing and how he looks doing it. This is a fully realized, multi-layered, deeply nuanced performance. This is a skillful execution of a bizarre concept that I would, without hesitation, compare to Jeffrey Wright’s performance in Angels in America—the main difference being that Jeffrey Wright wasn’t asked to play all those characters at the same time.

I honestly cannot overemphasize the challenge of having to play a character who’s also playing someone else. For the sake of public discourse, take Soderberg’s Ocean’s Twelve. Here, Julia Roberts plays Tess Ocean, a character who as part of a terrible plot point is asked to impersonate Julia Roberts and yet does an awful job. Julia Roberts can’t pull off pretending to be someone else pretending to be herself. Nicolas Cage can.

The character(s) Nic plays here are powerfully different not only from each other but also from what I’ve seen him do previously. There is no trace of, say, National Treasure’s Benjamin Franklin Gates. Gone are the lingering memories of Nic playing other characters. When Cage becomes Travolta trapped in Cage’s body…it transcends into genius.

It’s like Being John Malkovich but one level deeper. In Being John Malkovich, John Malkovich as an actor shifts between being himself and various other versions of himself, much like Julia Roberts was supposed to do. Still, it was all sides of Malkovich appearing as multiple Malkovii. Watching Nic Cage do his best Travolta impression while wholly making the viewer believe he is Travolta’s character is astounding. It’s executed with total aplomb. Nic Cage and John Travolta talk briefly here about how they “collectively created a character” and I can definitely see it.

There’s also something to be said for Mindy Marin, the casting director. I’ve realized that a huge part of the success of Nicolas Cage is when people know how and when to use him. With Nic, it’s “buyer beware.” Or maybe “handle with care.” Putting Mr. Cage in this movie was an inspired decision, and I think Marin fully understood what she was signing up for. As a casting director, Mindy Marin has made some other exceptional decisions, including Ellen Page for Juno and Ryan Gosling in Drive. This is a woman that knows how to cast a movie. (She also apparently wrote this book with an unfortunate name.)

All this broaches the idea of a movie that exists for entertainment’s sake alone. There’s nothing to vilify about that. Sometimes you just want to watch John Travolta trapped in Nicolas Cage’s body. If you can believe Christopher Nolan’s dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream nonsense can be a catalyst for entertainment, Face/Off has to be just as valid. You shouldn’t feel any guiltier about consuming either movie than you would about getting bacon and a fried egg on your cheeseburger.

On a final note, I’d like to take a moment to point out that the supporting cast includes Margaret Cho (Drop Dead Diva, All American Girl, Burlesque, not to mention her standup), C. C. H. Pounder (Avatar, The Shield, Warehouse 13), Robert Wisdom (The Wire), Colm Feore (Storm of the Century, Chicago), and Joan Allen (The Crucible, The Contender).

How did any of these people get involved in a project like this? Joan Allen was already a Steppenwolf veteran at this point, with Nixon and The Crucible under her belt. Margaret Cho, to my knowledge, hasn’t done anything else that wasn’t comedy.

I also want to note that John Woo, director of this fine film (and many others where doves fly in slow motion) is one of the privileged few to work with Cage in more than one movie, with Windtalkers being the other. I feel that says something, but I’m not sure what. Either way, this warrants further exploration. Until next time, I leave you with this glowing review of Nic Cage in Face/Off and more signs that Nicolas Cage could be an acting genius.

How was the movie?
How was Nic Cage’s acting?
So good, it boggles the mind
Did his performance make the movie worse?
Quite the opposite