A provocative premise, virtuoso direction and two dazzling lead performances go a long way toward offsetting a lack of dramatic structure in "Face/Off." Watching John Travolta and Nicolas Cage square off and literally exchange roles brings back the old-fashioned pleasure of astutely judged movie star pairings in a major way, and director John Woo finally gets his chance to shoot the works in a Hollywood picture.

A provocative premise, virtuoso direction and two dazzling lead performances go a long way toward offsetting a lack of dramatic structure and a sense of when to quit in “Face/Off.” Watching John Travolta and Nicolas Cage square off and literally exchange roles partway through brings back the old-fashioned pleasure of astutely judged movie star pairings in a major way, and Hong Kong director John Woo finally gets his chance to shoot the works in a Hollywood picture. Action audiences and the actors’ many fans will relish this one, making for big B.O. here and overseas, where Buena Vista will release the Par-Touchstone co-venture.

With his mesmerizing camera style and use of music, Woo locks the viewer in from the first moments of the credits sequence, which shows maniacal criminal Castor Troy (Cage) drawing a bead on FBI agent Sean Archer (Travolta) while the latter lovingly cavorts with his son on a carousel, but accidentally killing the kid instead.

Using pure cinema technique nearly as effectively as Sergio Leone did to establish a revenge motif, Woo jumps ahead six years, with Archer, the leader of the agency’s covert L.A.-based anti-terrorism unit, still obsessed with tracking down his son’s murderer.

First, and close to the best, action set piece has Archer’s team closing in on the indiscriminately violent Troy as he attempts to take off in a private jet. Many killings and considerable breathless excitement later, Archer and Troy have their first of several Mexican standoffs before the latter is apparently blasted to smithereens by the force of a jet engine.

But after Archer promises his doctor wife, Eve (Joan Allen), that his vendetta is accomplished and he will now retire from dangerous field work, Archer discovers that Troy is still alive, even if comatose, and he and his demented brother, Pollux (Alessandro Nivola), have planted a nerve gas bomb that threatens, in Troy’s words, “to unleash the biblical plague that L.A. deserves.”

The only person who knows the details of the bomb is Pollux, now imprisoned but defiantly unhelpful. He would share confidences only with his co-conspirator brother, so, a half-hour into the tale, Archer agrees to an extraordinary procedure: He will permit the evil Troy’s face, voice and entire physiognomy to be transferred to his own body so that he can learn the details of the heinous plot and save the city from catastrophe.

Sequence that documents the merging and eventual transference of the two superstars is breathtaking, tantalizingly directed to reveal just so much (the lifting of each man’s outer skin off the facial muscle is gross but not like a surgical documentary). Kevin Yagher’s special makeup and the visual effects employed to make the transformation convincing are extraordinary, and pic at this point will have all but the most literal-minded viewers wrapped around its little finger.

Gambit also gives the actors a delicious opportunity to play two roles, and they make the most of it. Archer, in the guise of Troy, is sent to the high-security prison where Pollux is incarcerated, and Cage reveals in stages the growth pangs of a decent man suddenly forced, even liberated, to express evil.

Of course, Troy is not immediately given Archer’s face, but a notably far-fetched plot development allows him to demand it, permitting the villain to take over his nemesis’ life. Established by Cage as an utterly amoral, risk-loving, conscienceless criminal with terrific skills as a gunman, Troy is seized by Travolta with great wit and cockiness; the devilish glee this villain takes in assuming the office of an FBI operative, slipping into bed with another man’s wife and even coming on to his teen daughter (upcoming Lolita Dominique Swain) is vastly amusing.

Pollux lets slip that L.A. is set to blow in six days, setting Archer the imposing task of escaping from prison, finding out where the bomb is planted and convincing anyone that matters, from the authorities to his wife, that he, and not the arrogant guy who looks just like he used to look, is actually the noble Archer.

While there are some nice twists along the way, notably Troy’s clever decision to play the hero in saving the city in order to increase his power at the FBI, the film doesn’t build in the swift, sure way it should from this point on. Archer’s escape from prison, which involves a wildly protracted battle, is especially unconvincing, and too often there is the sense of carnage and gunplay for their own sakes. Although not as egregious as the excess in Cage’s current “Con Air,” this film similarly does not know the virtue of “less is more.”

Woo sets up sequence after sequence that appear intended as the climax, with Archer and Troy blasting away at each other with balletic grace, and with varying numbers of other people in the way, only to let them live for yet another confrontation. Director finally decides to end things with a speedboat chase that, even if gratuitous in feel, delivers the goods in excitement and spectacle.

Woo’s talent for kinetic, shorthand direction is evident here, but it is still the two toplined actors who carry most of the film’s weight, their star wattage turned up all the way. Casting an actress of Allen’s seriousness and substance as Archer’s wife was a good idea, and Nivola is an interesting presence as the disturbed Pollux.

Technically, “Face/Off” is smashing literally and figuratively, with terrific stunt work, effects and lensing. John Powell’s unusually varied score contributes different textures to assorted sequences, although overlaying an Olivia Newton-John version of “Over the Rainbow” on an extremely violent shootout in which a child is imperiled displays poor judgment and taste.

Face/Off

Production

A Paramount release of a Douglas/Reuther-WCG Entertainment-David Permut production. (International distribution: Buena Vista Intl.) Produced by Permut, Barrie M. Osborne, Terence Chang, Christopher Godsick. Executive producers, Jonathan D. Krane, Michael Douglas, Steven Reuther. Co-producers, Michael Colleary, Mike Werb. Directed by John Woo. Screenplay, Mike Werb, Michael Colleary.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Oliver Wood; editors, Christian Wagner, Steven Kemper; music, John Powell; production design, Neil Spisak; art direction, Steve Arnold; set design, Steven Schwartz, Gerald Sullivan, Barbara Ann Spencer, Suzan Wexler; set decoration, Garrett Lewis; costume design, Ellen Mirojnick; sound (Dolby/DTS), David Ronne; visual effects supervisors, Richard Hollander, Boyd Shermis; visual effects, VIFX; special makeup effects, Kevin Yagher; stunt coordinator, Brian Smrz; associate producer, Jeff Levine; assistant director, Arthur Anderson; second unit director, Billy Burton; second unit camera, Gary Capo; casting, Mindy Marin. Reviewed at the Chinese Theater, L.A., June 19, 1997. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 138 MIN.

With

Sean Archer - John Travolta
Castor Troy - Nicolas Cage
Eve Archer - Joan Allen
Pollux Troy - Alessandro Nivola
Sasha Hassler - Gina Gershon
Jamie Archer - Dominique Swain
Dietrich Hassler - Nick Cassavetes
Lazzaro - Harve Presnell
Dr. Malcolm Walsh - Colm Feore
Prison Guard Walton - John Carroll Lynch
Hollis Miller - CCH Pounder
Tito - Robert Wisdom
Wanda - Margaret Cho
Buzz - Jamie Denton
Loomis - Matt Ross

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