Credit: Stephen Vaughan

In Face/Off, Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo’s masterfully daredevil new action thriller, John Travolta plays Sean Archer, an obsessed FBI agent who has finally captured and nearly offed Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), the psychopathic terrorist who murdered Archer’s young son six years earlier. But the mythologically named Castor and his equally warped brother, Pollux (Alessandro Nivola), have hidden a bomb set to decimate Los Angeles, and Archer needs to find it. To do so — to infiltrate the world of the enemy he has come to know as deeply as a brother — he endures some surgical magic to have his face temporarily removed, replaced with the phiz of his supposedly brain-dead nemesis. Far from being a goner, though, Troy rises from his gurney and strong-arms his way into having Archer’s mug grafted on his own head — the better to wreak evil not only in the FBI but in the intimacy of Archer’s own home as well.

Travolta and Cage, then, play two roles each, themselves and their opposite, good and evil, locked in a face-off as passionate as an embrace. The men-as-two-sides-of-the-same-coin theme is a Woo specialty (The Killer), as are operatically opulent displays of violence and the development of character with the smallest of gestures (Travolta’s Archer runs his hand over the faces of those he loves, Cage’s Troy stoops to tie his brother’s shoelace). But it is the steady accretion of hundreds of small moments in this elegant, high-spirited, intensely satisfying production — the director’s third American movie, but the first to approach the dazzle of his Hong Kong stuff — that, toted up, makes everything right about this desperately welcome thriller.

Travolta hasn’t been this mesmerizing a star, or this good an actor, since Pulp Fiction. Obviously thriving under the stewardship of Woo (who also directed him in the less satisfying Broken Arrow), he draws out a performance from his costar as rigorous as Con Air‘s is lazy. Indeed, everyone in Face/Off rises to the joy of making something good (and even funny) as well as big. Joan Allen, as the FBI man’s wife, responds in arpeggios of emotion to the disorienting sexual excitement of Troy with Archer’s face; Bound‘s Gina Gershon, as Troy’s tense girlfriend, relaxes in the presence of compassionate Archer with Troy’s face; as Archer’s adolescent daughter, Dominique Swain (she stars in the upcoming Lolita) works smoothly with Travolta as real dad and as dangerously false dad.

And, of course, there are those characteristically beautiful, and even haunting, Woo set pieces of choreographed violence. In one sequence, battle is done in a church. In another, a little boy wanders through extended mayhem unawares, with ”Over the Rainbow” playing through headphones clamped to his ears. Any one of these details points up everything missing from the rest of this summer’s lummox-made ”event” movies — i.e., style, risk, plot complexity, character development, good acting, great taste. Face/Off makes bad movies look worse and makes the making of good movies look like the most thrilling work in the world. A