Directed by John Woo. Screenplay by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary. Starring John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Nick Cassavetes, Alessandro Nivola, and Gina Gershon. At area theaters.

The title of John Woo's Face/Off is meant to be taken literally. John Travolta and Nicolas Cage play adversaries who swap faces. Here's how: FBI agent Sean Archer (Travolta) has been single-mindedly tracking terrorist nut Castor Troy (Cage) ever since Castor killed Archer's 5-year-old son in a botched hit on Archer six years earlier. Following an opening smash-and-grab destructo orgy, Archer puts Castor into an apparently irreversible coma -- but there's a hitch. Castor has planted a biological weapon somewhere in Los Angeles, and the bomb's set to incinerate the city in six days. Only Castor's brother, Pollux (Alessandro Nivola), in a maximum-security lockup, knows where it is.

Archer must impersonate Castor and coax the information from the imprisoned Pollux. This means assuming not only his identity but his mug -- courtesy of a space-age medical technology that removes both Castor's and Archer's faces. Archer's is preserved in a saline solution, while Castor's is mapped onto Archer's.

But Castor revives from his coma and takes on Archer's face -- and life. Castor rides high as Archer, while the real Archer is locked in prison with Castor's face -- a double imprisonment. Archer looks in the mirror and sees his own worst enemy; meanwhile, the enemy sleeps with his wife (Joan Allen) and, with the full backing of the FBI, plots his extinction.

This plot may be serpentine, but uncoil it and you get a baroque variant on a standard acting-school exercise. Face/Off is essentially about John Travolta and Nicolas Cage impersonating each other's acting style. What is fascinating here is that the actors go beyond gimmickry; they appear to be impersonating each other's essence. Somehow, they take in whatever is special about the other actor and then -- effortlessly, mysteriously -- let it come through their own features and intonations.

Face/Off wouldn't work without two great actors, and it doesn't always work with them. But their gifts justify the whole loony enterprise. Watching their performances is like looking at a pair of double images: You have to keep reminding yourself of the peekaboo guises, and the effort keeps you locked into the movie.

Still, I dread the deep-dish dithyrambs about this film that no doubt will litter the magazine pages of Sight and Sound and Film Comment in coming months. Face/Off is John Woo's third Hollywood movie, but it's his first to really connect to his most flamboyantly outrageous Hong Kong work. It's the film in which Hollywood finally lets Woo be Woo, and, among other things, this means we sink once again into the mythic mire. Even though the script (by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary) predates Woo's involvement, it has all the earmarks of vintage Woo -- especially the hero/villain duality bit.

But the notion that goodness and depravity coexist in both heroes and villains isn't such a big wow. It's the kind of tony kitsch conceit that book and movie crime thrillers have been playing around with ever since the pulpsters glommed onto Robert Louis Stevenson. In Face/Off the conceit doesn't resonate thematically, because psychologically neither Archer nor Castor really crosses over into the opposing camp. They don't bring out the best/worst in each other.

On the contrary, Castor has a high old time using the FBI's clout to wreak revenge; his entrance into the chambers of his nemesis is supersmarmy. He obliquely comes on to Archer's punkette daughter, Jamie, played by Dominique Swain, the Lolita in the upcoming Adrian Lyne version of the Nabokov novel; yet he's also a better, more attentive, and more protective father than Archer -- a man so haunted by the death of his son he has all but ignored his daughter. It's also implied that Archer's wife is intriguingly perplexed by her bedmate's newfound studliness.

Archer, for his part, doesn't get high on the mayhem he foments within the prison and without. He doesn't locate within himself a depravity to match his enemy's. And so the mythic soul swap in Face/Off doesn't really come off. Basically we're looking at two amazing actors riffing off each other, and that should be enough. All the rest is window dressing -- except, of course, Woo is so busy shattering windows it's easy to get sidetracked into thinking there's more going on here than meets the bloodshot eye.

Not that I mind some pretentiousness in my pulp -- it makes it go down easier. When the screenwriters call the two brothers Castor and Pollux Troy, the wink-wink reference to the twin sons of Leda and Zeus and brothers of Helen of Troy is a prime piece of smarty-pants gamesmanship (even though the twinning is really between Archer and Castor). You can while away your time at John Woo movies pulling out mythic patterns because he builds them right into the plot. He also works in Catholic symbology: In Face/Off he stages a climactic shootout in a church.

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