Tom Jolliffe on the problems facing a Face/Off sequel almost a quarter of a century on from the original…
Even in an ever changing film climate, with theatrical distribution facing unprecedented difficulties when coming out the other side of the global pandemic, the predilection for remakes/reboots/sequels continues. If it worked once it could work again. Even when it didn’t work the first time, we’ve seen film-makers breath new life into a dormant property. Occasionally they’re good, perhaps more often they’re bad (the financial returns more often seem to underwhelm than exceed expectations). Whether the audience is lying in wait or not has often seemed to be an afterthought. Take perpetual attempts to jump start a Terminator franchise which ran out of battery the first time James Cameron jumped ship (and even his return with jump leads proved fruitless).
So now we have more firm confirmation that a long vaunted follow-up to Face/Off is close to happening. Reports of the Adam Wingard-fronted project dropped last week. His clarification came that this would be a direct sequel because remaking a ‘perfect action film’ would be sacrilege. In truth, if the concept is the same and the cast is entirely new, it’s all but a remake anyway, and nods back to the very distinct original may only compound this new film. There are a number of pitfalls in making this, but for the sake of balance I’ll look at the areas where this could succeed.
Face/Off is something of an oddity. The plot, which seemed to be part of a trend of regalvanising high concept action at the tail end of last century (of which Nicolas Cage would consistently front going into the new century), wasn’t weaved with much attention to logic. In sci-fi you have ideas that become believable, or those which seem preposterous even if you’re dealing with the same idea someone else has already done (see time travel). Even if you stop to think about the ins and outs, the ideal scenario is in creating a film that keeps your attention focused away from finer details, and enthralled enough to make them a passing post watch conundrum.
Take The Terminator paradox for example. The original film is a perfect genre film. Questions are inevitable in any time travel film, the art is making sure your audience isn’t doing that during the film, because they’re too hooked into the action. To paraphrase Mark Kermode, you want to be thinking ‘Wow…not what!??’ Face/Off is a whole pile of what!?? It’s ludicrous. Absolutely barking mad. Yet, as Wingard attests, it’s a perfect action movie (I wouldn’t quite go that far, but it’s a huge slice of brilliance).
There are three significant reasons Face/Off works as well as it does (for those that dig it). Despite it’s goofiness, it really does roll into the landing. You’d expect it to shatter its legs to pieces, but it comes right back up grinning like a Nic Cage meme. Firstly, John Woo came to Hollywood. In that time he’s done one film which felt like it successfully captured Woo’s HK formula for intensity and balletic grace. That was Hard Target, which has aged well, and though simple was deceptively clever too (it was also a near perfect use of JCVD). From then on, Woo, perhaps hamstrung by the Hollywood process and politics, or an inability to get the cut exactly as he’d want, became something of a caricature of himself.
By Mission: Impossible 2, it was almost like Woo was the David Zucker (Airplane, Naked Gun) version of himself. The Hong Kong cinema sensibility and gifts of stoic poetic charisma from actors like Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung were perfect foil for Woo. Arguably Van Damme was the most well suited actor to his gifts since his Hollywood era, at least to the purest version of Woo-Cinema. With the American movie star combined with Woo there was just a juxtaposition that fermented into something cheesy. Entertaining at best of course (M:I 2 is a whole lot of fun despite being sort of terrible). Still, the cheesy Hollywood version of Woo was actually granted a perfect platform in Face/Off. With all consideration to the ingredients, the film should have been Battlefield Earth terrible, but it was superb.
With Woo’s penchant for flying doves, duality and double handed gunplay, the film had a theatrical verve (most brilliantly exemplified by a gun battle to the soundtrack of Somewhere over the Rainbow, pure Woo pastiche by Woo himself). Earlier rumours suggested the potential of Stallone and Schwarzenegger trading faces. That wouldn’t have worked, certainly not with ‘Murica Woo. No, what we had was Nicolas Cage, a suddenly emerging action hero, and John Travolta still dancing at his Tarantino-lead resurrection. The idea was simple: Travolta is the good guy, Cage is the baddie. A third of the way into the film, for near incomprehensible reasons, there’d be a switch up where the characters switch faces and thus allow a trade up of roles. Cage now the hero, Travolta now the villain. In essence, with both actors dialling up to a level very few besides them can reach, they were allowed the unrestrained freedom to devour scenery as Caster Troy. Let’s face it too, even as Sean Archer, the guy with ‘a stick up his butt’ still had enough anguish and psychological breakdown to allow for some ham. Ham it may be, but this was good ham. This was high quality, perfectly aged, honey glazed ham. Woo + Travolta + Cage = Perfection.
Here-in lies the biggest hurdle. How do you match that combination? Has anyone found the perfect recreation of the Colonel’s 11 herbs and spices? Not yet, but some things can’t be matched. So you go an alternative method. Perhaps they go for something more grounded, gritty, intense. It’s an option, but for that, the concept has to also feel more believable, or at least in its delivery. Too often when reboots scrape away what made an original great by conventionalising the idea, it becomes a dreary, po-faced borefest (see The Hitcher, or Point Break remakes). The beauty of Face/Off was that despite the shortcomings the idea brought with it, such was the flair of its performers and its director, our mind was pulled away from thoughts about differing body shapes etc.
Wingard is well into the big budget arena now, which puts him at a level to cherry pick the big names, but honestly, are there a combination of movie stars around who could provide the flair of Travolta/Cage from then? I feel like there’s a certain blandness these days to a few, as far as personality quirks and flamboyance. Of course you could go the more grounded route, but everything needs to be on point to get the audience engaged. There have been too many remakes of inherently unique high concept cinema that on paper had good casts, but none of the personality of the original (RoboCop, Total Recall). Likewise because sci-fi can often have a base level of silliness, to successfully make it feel believable and terrifyingly prescient (Ex_Machina for example) takes a lot of skill, and just as often the studios seem almost adverse to treating the ideas intelligently, opting for simple thrills and a timely/uniformly crafted delivery. Often phasers are set to ‘go big or go home.’
Certainly Wingard could take a more minimalist approach, akin to his auspicious beginnings with You’re Next and The Guest, to create a genre film which has enough nostalgia and intimacy to grab the audience. These films don’t have to go full on big (as Upgrade recently and brilliantly proved). I feel like there’s a potentially great use of the Face/Off concept with someone like Brandon Cronenberg or Panos Cosmatos at the helm. We’re not so interested in the science because the atmosphere and psychological intensity is so thrilling. Wingard in fairness could have that ability. There’s certainly an 80’s body horror homage in waiting for a Face/Off reworking, if not the Ex_Machina approach in opening some philosophical ideas and using the VFX sparingly (but brilliantly).
One of the biggest hurdles however is the audience itself. If this is potentially a Paramount tentpole, is there enough demand to revisit the Face/Off concept, whether you successfully modernise it or not? Blade Runner 2049 for example, was exceptional and perfectly rebooted the original, whilst effectively following it directly. It did so intelligently, creating one of the best sci-fi films this century. Trouble is, not enough people went to see what was a massive budget film. Face/Off’s new incarnation will unlikely cost as much as Blade Runner 2049, but I’d be surprised if they weren’t looking at somewhere in the region of $100 million. That in itself can tend to almost curse your film, and be a temptation to lead it away from maintaining a strong character focus (whereas smaller budgets almost force you to do so, as you have to ration your bells and whistles). With your potential audience for theatrical released tent-poles as key a consideration as its ever been, this is a risky property for Paramount to reboot. Time will tell the approach taken, or whether subsequent releases from the studio, prior to this shooting, could cause a rethink, but perhaps some caution is advisable.
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What are your thoughts on a Face/Off reboot? Who would you like to see cast? Let us know your thoughts on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/