Nic Cage wasn’t always a walking punchline. But after winning the Best Actor Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas (1995), he started choosing roles that allowed him to work with interesting filmmakers, regardless of whether the movies would be any good. His first post-Oscar film, Michael Bay’s frenetic The Rock (1996), was a hit, and his next two — Con Air and Face/Off, released three weeks apart in June 1997 — became iconic ‘90s action flicks. Twenty years later, though, one is much more enjoyable and functional than the other.
The less successful of the two is Con Air. It was another hit for Cage that would keep him on the A-list for the time being, but it doesn’t hold up so well in hindsight. It tries way too hard, coming to the party ready to be enjoyed ironically without earning the over-the-top elements it’s delivering. That could easily be attributed to the work-for-hire director, Simon West, who is certainly no Michael Bay. Even when Bay is doing something he clearly doesn’t care about (Transformers 5 is out June 23), there are bizarre elements only he can deliver, whereas West has only done bland, almost TV-quality work, never igniting any kind of spark.
But Con Air also suffers because its supposed originality is a facade. Every Jerry Bruckheimer-produced movie of that era looks and sounds exactly the same — same visual style, same score, and a cadre of character actors playing one-dimensional roles. For all the visual sizzle, there’s no steak to chew on.
Face/Off, directed by John Woo, is the complete opposite of Con Air: a one-of-a-kind movie that couldn’t have existed under the guidance of any other filmmaker. It is insane and must be seen to be believed. The synopsis — good guy and bad guy literally trade faces, allowing Cage and fellow scenery-chewer John Travolta to do impersonations of one another — makes an insane promise that the movie thankfully delivers on.
Unlike the unremarkable director behind Con Air, Face/Off got a true visionary. John Woo came to Hollywood as Hong Kong’s king of action cinema. While he struggled for a bit with movies that didn’t completely fit his sensibilities — Hard Target (1993) and Broken Arrow (1995) — Face/Off fit him like a glove. His style has the well-known element of dual-gun-wielding mayhem, but there’s a melodramatic side too. Brotherhood, loyalty, and redemption are all themes he liked to chase, and his first two American movies didn’t allow him to strike the proper balance. But Face/Off does. Of the trilogy of unsubtle action movies Cage made in the 90s, this stands at top of the heap as the craziest of the bunch.
There are many reasons why Face/Off works better than Con Air, but they are exemplified by the different ways they use Cage. Con Air is a much simpler movie, with black-and-white morality. It begins by establishing that Cage’s character, Cameron Poe, is a good guy despite being in jail. He’s played as a saint the whole time, different from all the other criminals on that plane. And since all of the villains are pitched at such a mustache-twirling level of evil, Cage has to play Poe quiet and low-key. Aside from a horrible Southern accent, it’s just a typical action-hero role that doesn’t need Cage to be brought to life.
Face/Off, on the other hand, absolutely needs the alien frequency that Cage is dialed into as he plays villain Castor Troy (and hero Sean Archer impersonating Castor Troy). As over-the-top as the movie is, the two leads are quite layered. We can joke about how fun it is to see Cage and Travolta mimic each other, but they do it well, and the pre-face-swapping part of the movie gives us a good sense of their personalities. You need Cage to make Troy vile and hateful, but charismatic enough that you like to watch him, maybe even hope that living in Sean Archer’s shoes will inspire him to change. The movie may not take such a wild turn, but the possibility is there. The role is a five-course meal that only an actor as big and courageous as Cage can enjoy.
Nic Cage apparently came out of his Oscar win with a desire to become an action hero. And he did it, too, with The Rock and Face/Off, both of which utilized his quirky skillset. (Never mind Con Air, a truly forgettable piece of Michael Bay copycat junk that is only praised today by action junkies who saw it in theaters.) Looking back at his 20-year-old action classics, there’s one real lesson to be learned from them. If you’re gonna get an A-list actor, make sure it’s worthy of his time and talent.
Tom Lorenzo lives in Long Island, N.Y., has only one face.