Few embraced the 1990s’ bigger, louder, blunter approach to American action movies with more gusto than Nicolas Cage. His back-to-back genre fare was so relentless that two of the decade’s most iconic—Simon West’s Con Air and John Woo’s Face/Off—hit theaters mere weeks apart 25 years ago. They arrived so soon off the back of his heartbreaking Oscar win in 1996 (for playing a suicidal alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas) that audiences risked cinematic whiplash; it would be like if Colin Firth’s immediate post-King’s Speech projects were Taken 2 and Battleship.
There was an immediate critical divide in Face/Off’s favor, but as the years passed, an appreciation for producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s aviation romp has grown, giving a level playing field for the two to be pitted against each other. But the story of Con Air and Face/Off isn’t a duel, it’s a diptych; one film is in conversation with another. Using their uniquely thespian star as a lens, we can see the breadth of what American action could and would be at the turn of the millennium in full clarity.
In both films, Cage’s hero pointedly blurs the line between conventionally righteous goodie and incorrigible baddie. Con Air’s Cameron Poe, a fine Southern gentleman and manslaughterer, is eligible for parole after an eight-year sentence he received for the world’s most dramatically staged knife fight. His character is carefully constructed to earn our sympathies: A veteran who committed a crime defending his pregnant wife, and who spends his sentence building a relationship with a daughter he’s never met.
He is only criminal enough to justify his presence on the big hijacked plane o’ inmates, and yet a choice was still made to feature an undercover DEA agent on the plane who, less cool and collected than Poe in a crisis, gets blown away as soon as things go south. Action films in the Die Hard age a decade prior wouldn’t hesitate at making their protagonist this undercover cop, but now we have a new hero: A criminal whose criminality is acceptable to an audience eager for the genre to evolve, but not be completely subverted. Our hero isn’t golden, but he’s fundamentally good where it counts.
Anyway, the first thing Cage does in Face/Off is murder a child.
Of course the Cage who kills said child is not the Cage who will end up avenging him. Cage plays Castor Troy, a super-terrorist whose master plan can only be unraveled if Sean Archer (John Travolta) swaps faces with him. Things get out of hand, meaning it’s Troy’s face, worn by Archer, that’s the one seeking justice…also meaning he will have to act like his child’s killer to save the day. The lines between hero and villain aren’t blurred, they’re perverted; these aren’t the unchallenging confines Con Air acts within.
Despite differences in narrative design, Con Air and Face/Off both feel like the same kind of movie. So bloated and electrified are they by ‘90s archetypes that while they may have become dated minutes within their release, they share connective tissue in tone and style. Their approaches to humor are characterized by dialogue and performances that strive less for wit and more for blunt idiosyncrasy: Con Air’s iconic “Put the bunny back in the box,” (repeated a few times in case you missed it) is matched by Face/Off’s sleazy innuendo, “I could eat a peach for hours” (said only once but promptly followed by tongue sucking). There’s a sense of cocksure buffoonery in both. While they may not have intended every laugh they ultimately produce, they seem to be at least aware their endeavors are worthy of laughter.
An insistence on wannabe cleverness, in the style that would soon proliferate Michael Bay films, means Con Air is often in danger of becoming grating. But its boorish self-satisfaction at its own witlessness soon becomes part of its charm. The confidence with which every dud lands makes the film’s stupidity resoundingly affable. With such pitiful attempts at cleverness, Con Air avoids being insufferable by being too dumb to be annoying.
Fewer jokes are cracked in Face/Off. Rather, the whole thing is the joke. Delirium fills every scene like a noxious invisible gas, letting the game performers lap up the dialogue to all sorts of lascivious, deranged ends. The cartoonish extremes of emotion on display undermine the screenplay’s attempts at sincerity, highlighting the vacuous characters who populate American action. To watch Con Air is to see the mechanisms of Hollywood storytelling laid out in their most bloated, perfunctory form; to watch Face/Off is to see them reinterpreted, even subverted, by an outsider.
But Con Air’s typically Hollywood action trappings don’t make the film suffer. Its insider status compels with how boldly and unapologetically it accepts American bravado, opting to deliver far too much rather than not enough. What it lacks in intelligence it makes up for in volume, even down to its poorly shot action, as if the filmmakers’ ignorance as to how to shoot and edit fight scenes didn’t dissuade them from including plenty. There’s a grace and rhythm to the stunts and setpieces in Woo’s film that just isn’t present in West’s. If the fighters in Face/Off seem superpowered as they bound through the air, people in Con Air are dwarfed by the avalanche-like sway of vehicles on collision courses with one another. But the films share a dramatic question at the heart of their action, an evolution of the standard: “How will our hero get out alive?” now supercharged to “How can any human being possibly survive this?”
While the rich interiority of tangibly real human beings is not a priority for Con Air or Face/Off, there’s a dynamism to how each protagonist resists or admits introspection. Poe, with his unsubtle altruism and incorruptible convictions, has a trajectory much like his focused and unwavering plane. Sean Archer, by contrast, wears the skin of his enemy and faces a dissolution of identity (which, admittedly, can sometimes just be him in front of a mirror repeating “I’m not me…I’m me…”). Serial killer Garland Greene provides Con Air’s sole interrogation of Poe’s moral standing by comparing him to famous killers, something firmly rebuked by the impenetrable Poe. In contrast, Archer’s life (before the face-switching) is so full of struggle that wearing Castor’s face is treated like liberation.
By 1997, the age of impassive leading hunks onto whom the barest of distinguishing characterization was projected, à la Schwarzenegger and Stallone, was dying. After Die Hard’s put-upon everyman, audiences wanted heroes that felt, and acted, more human. Poe’s dedication to family is the film’s emotional heart, but it’s mainly there to strengthen his dedication to rebuking his fellow inmates and restoring justice. If Face/Off encourages us to submit to chaos, Con Air warns us to hold fast to order.
Con Air sees the gauntlet thrown down by the changing times, and responds by doubling down on simplicity. The emotionally manipulative ballads and garishly sentimental dialogue that underpin scenes of Poe’s family communicates acutely that, yes, action films can be trite and mawkish, but that doesn’t mean audiences won’t respond to them. It’s only fitting for Poe to be heroic plywood. Do you want a hero that will shift and fluctuate, or do you want one that stays unflinching and obstinate in the face of grave peril?
It’s because of Cage’s tremendous performances that we’re allowed both. Because he’s such an against-type action star, there’s not the bulking physique or rugged handsomeness that immediately, if subconsciously, conjures likeability from an audience. He has to work, from the first moment to the last, to get us on board. These are stories where the lead has to meet the needs of the character, not the other way around. Cage is perfect in these films because you feel the work he’s putting in; with every Alabamian twang or wide-eyed cackle our attention is being called to the performer inhabiting a persona, something that isn’t effortless or natural, but is completely devoid of ego. Con Air and Face/Off put the “act” back into “action.”
Looking at them less competitively and more symbiotically, Con Air and Face/Off embody a turning point in American action cinema. Tropes were reaffirmed as much as they were undermined, and new, dynamic filmmaking styles were unveiled to American audiences. In their missions to depict an era of unprecedented cinematic excess, Con Air and Face/Off can be seen as two entities dancing to a rhythm that’s paradoxically synchronized and irregular—and with Cage leading them both, their excesses reached a level of bombastic transcendence. June 1997 didn’t know what hit it.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.