Review of Face/Off (1997)

If you like fast-paced, action-filled thrillers, Face/Off (1997) is the movie for you.

In its opening scene, FBI agent Sean Archer (played by John Travolta) is stalked by terrorist Castor Troy (actor Nicholas cage) who attempts to assassinate Archer, but kills his young son instead. Why Troy enacts his revenge on Archer is unclear, but the mutual animosity between them is what drives the movie.

Here’s the premise: To foil a terrorist plot, an FBI agent undergoes facial transplant surgery to assume the identity of the criminal mastermind who murdered his only son, but the criminal wakes up prematurely and seeks revenge.

Bad guys setting up elaborate schemes to play mind games with and exact revenge upon the FBI agents who sent them to prison is an often-used storyline for books, TV shows, and movies.

Placing an FBI agent in harm’s way is a standard convention of the thriller genre. In a crime thriller like Face/Off, the hero at the mercy of the villain is an obligatory scene.

For FBI policy and procedural accuracy, there’s not much to review in this cult classic. The FBI atmosphere and squad bullpen setup for Face/Off is spot on, the attire and the attitudes of the agents are realistic too. However, these are the only parts of the movie that are realistic.

As far as I am aware, facial transplants such as the ones performed in Face/Off are not authorized case fund expenditures, neither are they line items in the Bureau’s operations budget.

So let’s focus on the revenge plot, yet another FBI cliches. Threats are rare, but the FBI is very cautious about protecting its agents from harm. Agents receive immediate transfers to safety if a credible threat is made against them or their loved ones.

In most situations, the opposite happens, and the subjects of FBI cases will maintain cordial contact with case agents, including during and after serving time in prison.

These “bad guys” often call agents to let them know the name and location of the federal penitentiary where they’re assigned and continue to keep in touch for many years following their release.

During several of my FBI Retired Case File Review interviews, my colleagues and I have spoken about our camaraderie with former subjects and informants.

In most cases, subjects understand agents are just doing their job. Of course, in Face/Off, that’s definitely not the relationship that Agent Archer and Terrorist Troy developed during their prison encounters.

Face/Off is available to rent on Prime Video. Watch the official trailer here.

You can read more about the revenge myth in Chapter 19 – Bad Guys Plot Revenge Against The Agents Who Put Them Behind Bars of my book, FBI Myth and Misconceptions: A Manual for Armchair Detectives.

Jerri Williams

View posts by Jerri Williams
Jerri Williams, a retired FBI agent, author and podcaster, jokes that she writes about the FBI to relive her glory days. After 26 years with the Bureau specializing in major economic fraud and corruption investigations, she calls on her professional encounters with scams and schemers to write police procedurals inspired by true crime FBI cases in her Philadelphia FBI Corruption Squad crime fiction series featuring flawed female FBI agent Kari Wheeler. Jerri’s FBI for Armchair Detectives nonfiction series enables readers to discover who the FBI is and what the FBI does by debunking misconceptions about the FBI in books, TV, and movies. Her books are available as ebooks, paperbacks, and audiobooks wherever books are sold. She’s also the host of FBI Retired Case File Review, a true crime podcast with more than 300 episodes available on all popular podcast apps and YouTube.

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