In order to discover the location of a ticking bomb somewhere in Los Angeles, cop Sean Archer undergoes a revolutionary face-swapping procedure with comatose bad egg Castor Troy. However, when Troy wakes up, he turns the tables, and assumes Archer's identity, setting the scene for a showdown between them.
A little modern movie history. In 1988 John McTiernan stuck Bruce Willis in a skyscraper, penned a few witty one-liners, distilled his plot to 100 per cent proof high concept and bought a lot of big fireworks. The result, Die Hard, signalled the birth of one of the most successful sub-genres of all time - the modern actioner (essentially anything to which the dismally overworked coda "high octane" can be attached).
For the last ten years everything in that genre has been living on its legacy - and things had started to look jaded. Until now. Because with Face/Off, ex-Hong Kong director John Woo has given the whole shooting match a much needed kick in the squibs.
John Travolta is Sean Archer, head of a covert FBI counter terrorism agency on the trail of psychotic terrormeister Castor Troy (Cage), who has planted a bomb set to detonate after he has made his getaway and reduce the population of Los Angeles to one less than, er, one. Unfortunately, in the opening firefight Archer nixes said nutcase and, with no idea where the ticking device is, takes the "obvious" option. He has Troy's face sliced off and glued to his noggin while his own visage resides in a jar.
Needless to say such an opportunity for a concept so high you need oxygen to climb it cannot fail to be carried through and sure enough Cage, not dead after all, wakes up and appropriates Travolta's visage. The world, including Travolta's apple pie family and bosses, thinks one is the other, Travolta is slung into a futuristic version of Wormwood Scrubs while Cage porks his wife (Allen), ogles his daughter, and plans to take over the world, or at least Southern California.
It is, of course, beyond ludicrous. But Woo's strength is to positively revel in the unlikeliness of his conceit. In one of the plethora of memorable scenes Travolta (as Cage) breaks down in front of his confused wife and howls with hysterical laughter at the predicament he's in. Equally Cage (as Travolta) is not beyond dipping his toes in the self-referential water - "This ridiculous chin..." he moans.
But if the knowing sharpness of the script is one strength, the action sequences - which simply set a new benchmark - are another. Shoot-outs are choreographed with the precision of a 40s musical number (quite literally in one astounding firefight, played out to the strains of Somewhere Over The Rainbow), car chases assume a new intensity when jets and helicopters drift casually into shot and the final boat sequence features a shot of the two leads being hurled through the air that will leave audiences gasping.
Added to which are the performances from Travolta and Cage who try deliriously to out-do each other's lunatic badness when they get the Castor Troy role (Cage just pipping Travolta with the scene where, dressed as a priest after planting his bomb, he dances through the LA Conference Centre to the strains of the Hallelujah Chorus, lewdly harassing a girl in the choir singing it).
Woo's triumph, then, is to finally have realised the American sized budget Hong Kong actioner. While Broken Arrow and Hard Target had moments of the director's inimitable style - essentially a willingness to use any and every filmic trick, especially his beloved slo mo - Face/Off has Woo written through it like a stick of rock.
Sure there are niggles, the most obvious being the length, which could have been reduced by trimming the prison sequences, but in the end this may be his finest moment so far which, by default, puts it in as having a strong claim on the title "best action movie ever made". Really.