His Own Worst Enemy

IMAGINE THE SHOCK: EVERY TIME YOU look in the mirror you see your own worst enemy, the man who murdered your son. This is the outlandish predicament that faces FBI antiterrorist agent Sean Archer (John Travolta), who has surgically replaced his own face with that of the man he hates the most - the evil genius Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). Castor has planted a bomb somewhere in Los Angeles. Now he's in a coma, and the only person who knows the bomb's location is his unhinged brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola), who happens to be locked up in a high-tech prison. So Archer borrows Castor's identity to save L.A., but one major glitch arises in his plan. The wily and now faceless Troy arises from his coma, hijacks Sean's mug (and voice) and is running around town impersonating the FBI agent - not to mention fulfilling his marital duties. Meanwhile, good guy Sean - looking like bad guy Castor - is stuck in prison, where of course no one believes his farfetched story of who he really is.

Does this sound nuts, or what? Well, if only more action movies were this marvelously loopy, we'd all be having as much fun as we're pretending to have at ""Speed 2,'' ""Con Air'' and ""The Lost World.'' Face/Off is a summer movie extraordinaire: violent, imaginative, crazily funny and, even more surprising, oddly moving. Hollywood has finally wised up and let Hong Kong auteur John Woo strut his stuff in all its undiluted, over-the-top glory. Closer in spirit to his delirious Hong Kong thrill- er ""The Killer'' than to the homogenized ""Broken Arrow,'' ""Face/Off'' is grandly operatic pulp.

The writing team of Mike Werb and Michael Colleary have taken this cartoon-metaphysical premise - what if Good and Evil exchanged bodies in a fight to the death - and wrung some whoppingly clever complications from it. The movie really strikes gold in the casting of Travolta and Cage, who are obviously having a ball playing off each other's performances. Their delight is contagious. Each actor, in effect, gets to play a one-man duet: Travolta plays Cage playing Travolta while Cage plays Travolta playing Cage. It's a brilliant collaboration of two of the most daring, physically intuitive, soulful performers on screen, each getting to enact both stalwart hero and flamboyant villain in one body. Playing off their baroque style, Joan Allen, as Travolta's wife, more than holds her own: her unadorned emotional honesty anchors the movie in something like reality. Their teenage daughter is played, with fine spirit, by Dominique Swain, star of Adrian Lyne's forthcoming ""Lolita.''

Woo, a master of poetical carnage, mixes kitsch, sadism, sentiment and comedy with choreographic precision. Who else would stage an elaborately bloody shoot-out to ""Somewhere Over the Rainbow,'' or set a bullet-ridden confrontation in a beachside chapel midst a flock of flying doves? What separates his sense of humor from the cartoon mayhem of many other summer action flicks, however, is its lack of cynicism. The absurdity of this parable's premise doesn't stop Woo from taking it seriously. And with Cage and Travolta embodying the extremities of human nature, damned if we don't too.