Between The Lines: Face Off

April 13, 2010

This was another project I had aimed to get off the ground way back when all this ungodly gibbering blog madness first began.


Precisely what makes Face/Off so delightfully subversive is the central, though concealed, message of the film that indulgent immorality leads to more happiness for the individual whereas the struggle to live a moral, upstanding life leads to endless misery. Although the audience is eventually placated with a typical Hollywood ending – bad guy defeated, good guy saves his family, etc. the entire film up to that point has been a series of examples as to why it’s completely crap to be that good guy.

The villain, Castor Troy (initially played by Nicolas Cage), leads a life of endless pleasure and thrills. Although he has committed atrocious acts that have wasted and destroyed many lives he does not seem the slightest bit unhappy nor does he display any regret. Instead he jets around the world with his gang of friends partaking of copious amounts of sex and drugs. Troy is presented as an international terrorist although he has no political or ideological motivation for any of his terrorist activities rather; his sole reason for committing these acts seems to be to raise the necessary funds for his lifestyle of endless partying. All the comedy in Face/Off is delivered via Castor Troy and it is not challenging, dark comedy by any means. The tone is one of light-hearted mischief, even as Troy plants a bomb in an airport (stopping to grab the ass of a choir girl) or shoots a woman in the head before throwing her from a moving plane. Unlike most terrorist stereotypes – angry, zealous, cave-dwelling ideologues who look like they need a good bath – Troy is a dapper man who enjoys the finer things in life. Early in the film he is driven to his private jet where his small army of goons meet him and present him with an ornate box full of assorted recreational drugs and guns made of gold. This is the sociopath outlaw as rock star, an unsubtle image of pure cool for the target audience of the film. Troy has a life that many would envy, bar the mild inconvenience of being relentlessly pursued by squares in the FBI who want to end his homicidal hi-jinks.

In stark contrast, our hero, Sean Archer (initially played by John Travolta), is a miserable fuck. Obsessed with bringing Troy to justice, and mourning the death of his young son at the hands of the villain, he has allowed his life to go down the toilet. His marriage and sex life are utterly stagnant and his relationship with his daughter is strained. Travolta’s Archer spends most of his parts of the film looking like a dishevelled schmuck in middle management having the shit kicked out of him by the pervasive demands of work and family life. Even when he has enjoyed a seeming victory over Troy early on he approaches it in a glum, weepy manner. His crusade for justice has utterly consumed him, chewed him up and delivered little discernible reward in return. At no point in Face/Off is Sean Archer a hero that the viewer could possibly want to be. Although the aim is to ostensibly portray him as a grizzled lawman doggedly pursuing a master-criminal, he nonetheless exudes the air of a shambling loser.

When both characters undergo the whole life-swap central plot device and begin masquerading as one another, it turns out the heroic Archer as Troy continues to be miserable whereas the villainous Troy as Archer easily adapts to his new environment. Troy now has to adopt a facade of feigned morality and be outwardly the good guy but underneath it all he remains the same bad bastard he always was. This does not displease him, however, and he is soon having just as good a time as he did as plain old Castor Troy. He even projects his own pleasure pursuits onto Archer’s family by shagging his/Archer’s wife for the first time in months and having a friendly smoke with his/Archer’s daughter, to whom he also gives a knife to plunge into aggressive suitors. There are brief moments where Troy takes advantage of his infiltration into the life and family home of Archer to indulge in some incestuous-but-not-really longing after the teenage daughter, again carried off in the same mischievous rather than horrifying tone. The audience is supposed to chuckle at, and not necessarily be appalled by, Troy wanting to fuck the young daughter of his nemesis whilst literally wearing her father’s face. On the other hand, Archer as Troy sinks further into hell. As an upstanding, moral person he simply cannot adapt to his new environment which includes recreational ultra violence, massive drug use and all-round, 24 hour bastardry. We see Archer do little other than continue to suffer as he is forced to beat a man half to death in order to maintain the veneer of the evil Troy, barely choking back tears as he delivers kicks and blows to his prone victim before struggling to perform a false, manic grin of pleasure. Later he meets his/Troy’s friends at what becomes an impromptu drug party where the consumption of narcotics almost kills the clean-living G-Man whilst he has to pretend to enjoy the severe disorientation and confusion he is immersed in. Again, the audience cannot be expected to possibly envy the circumstances of the hero, now suffering Biblical trials. Elsewhere the Troy character’s insouciant malevolence sees him effortlessly enjoying himself and maintaining his chaotic cool with the only hiccup coming in the form of the death of his beloved, quirky nerd of a brother.

Face/Off ultimately says it’s good to be bad, the key to success and happiness in life is to be a cheery, evil, psycho fuck. The inverse, the attempt to live a good life, is to be rejected and resisted. Troy illustrates this perfectly by complaining to Archer during a gun battle “aw, Sean, you’re not having any fun”. The film is a gleeful celebration of conscience-free indulgence and a cautionary tale of how boring and depressing it can be to be too good.


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