The famed French auteur François Truffaut once said that there was no such thing as a truly anti-war film, for the very act of rendering combat cinematically would rob war of its intrinsic horror. Craftsmanship was useless—striking camerawork, propulsive editing, and impassioned acting would make war into either a glamorous pastime or a cathartic drama, easily analyzed and applauded away. The only alternative seemed to be to forsake craft entirely, which makes for good polemics but poor films. Bedeviled by this conundrum, most filmmakers simply tried not to think about it. Oliver Stone cast Charlie Sheen as the lead in Platoon. Matters seemed hopeless.
A tectonic shift in the cinematic landscape arrived with 1997's Face/Off. To modern ears that may sound like hyperbole; if so, that is only because it is so difficult to imagine a world that has not been altered by the ripples Face/Off created in artistic culture. Like The Battleship Potemkin, Citizen Kane, and Pulp Fiction before it, its innovations have suffused cinema so thoroughly that they seem commonplace to us now. But back in 1997, there was no denying that Hong Kong action maestro John Woo had created a masterpiece: a rousing spectacle, a searing deconstruction of action-movie violence, and an anti-war allegory all built on the familiar framework of the body-switching comedy.
The most remarkable of these feats, of course, is Woo's confident dismantling of Truffaut's maxim about war in cinema. By sublimating the atrocities of warfare into an operatic struggle between two individuals who switch faces and engage in an endless series of acrobatic gunfights, Woo frees himself from the requirements of verisimilitude. No longer shackled by the need to do justice to war's literal realities, he can chart its emotional and spiritual topography instead. Face/Off 's cinematic texture, not its narrative proper, is his instrument in this endeavor. The audience feels the awful surrealism of sustained conflict rather than watching a dramatic re-creation of it. Once FBI agent Sean Archer is trapped inside a floating super-prison whose inmates must wear magnet-boots at all times, Woo's tapestry of fever-dream "realism" is complete. We become numb to the senselessness of it all. Only the shocking bursts of violence remain to remind us that we are alive and wakeful.
However, like most of Woo's films (1989's The Killer, in particular, comes to mind), Face/Off has more on its mind than simply creating a portrait of violence. There is a spiritual component to the mayhem. Woo foregrounds this theme by juxtaposing shots of doves fluttering through a church with shots of his characters somersaulting over pews and filling the air with gunfire. Such thematically weighty use of mise-en-scène has always been one of the director's signatures, but it comes to full fruition here. The dual nature of violence—both transcendental force and threat to the innocent and fragile—echoes the duality of the face-swapping protagonists, who exist simultaneously on both sides of the good/evil divide. The church is gradually destroyed in the fracas, reflecting the damage inflicted on the souls of those who resort to violence. Woo's characters worship at the handgun's altar and feast on a Eucharist of bullets.
The director's understanding of this push-pull dynamic of action filmmaking—we desire to see thrillingly orchestrated atrocities even though we are keenly aware that their real-world equivalent is deplorable—is what has allowed Face/Off to stand the test of time. Woo gives us all the action we can stomach, subtly undercutting it with sublime self-parody as the plot spirals into madness. In the climactic police-boat chase, Cage and Travolta's stolen speedboat has become Elijah's fiery chariot, transporting them and us to a celestial realm of gun-fu and gigantic explosions. In that transition, the scales fall from our eyes and we realize that we have gotten exactly what we asked for—and then some.