John Travolta: examining his recent straight to DVD movies

We check out the John Travolta films that have been bypassing cinemas over the past few years...

In the days leading up to writing this article, which will cover a recent period in which he’s made a bunch of films that have quickly drifted to DVD or VOD, I had to stop and ask myself a genuine question: how do I actually feel about John Travolta?

The answer that rose from the depths of my coal-black, hell-bound soul was weirdly surprising. Brushing aside his personal life – which is not worth getting into here – I found I had nothing but good feelings surrounding his work as an actor.

I grew up with Carrie, Grease, Look Who’s Talking and perhaps his best film, Brian De Palma’s Blow Out. I also grew up with some of his clunkers, like the Look Who’s Talking sequels and 80s concept comedy The Experts. He’s been acting since before I was born, so he’s always been in the background of my pop culture landscape – working solidly for more than 40 years.

Over those decades, his catalogue has defied explanation. He seems to unapologetically pick whatever he feels moved to be a part of regardless of criticism and, goddamn it, there’s something inherently admirable about that. Unlike, say, Bruce Willis, he doesn’t seem happy with doing just a couple of days work on a shoot in a smaller part; more often he will choose to be the star, or at least have equal-ish screen time – even if the project isn’t boasting a huge budget or a big name director. When Pulp Fiction thrust him back into the mainstream, he was still picking up stuff like Phenomenon and Michael in the following years.

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I can confidently say that I’ve never seen the man actively ‘phone in’ a performance and even when he’s overcooked it, there’s usually a decent reason. I mean, if you find yourself on the set of Face/Off going up against The Cage, you’re gonna need to fight fire with fire. Even in Battlefield Earth, he was at least trying.

But in the last half decade we’ve found ourselves in a deeper Travolta trough than we’ve ever been in before. His films aren’t quite cutting the mustard in the industry like they used to and, after a run of flops that have seen him drift back into television with an impressive turn as Robert Shapiro in The People V. O.J. Simpson, I find myself wondering ‘will Travolta ever be big business again?’

So, I took a look at four of the films that Travolta’s worked on in the last few years – each of which has effectively gone straight to DVD (save for a few days in a cinema) – to see if anything’s slipped under our radar that needs a boost…

The Forger (2014)

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 7% IMDb Rating – 5.7/10

In The Forger, John Travolta is a man serving a prison sentence who makes a call to get out of it early so he can spend more time with his dying son. In exchange for help with bribing the judge to release him early, John’s expected to help forge a Monet for his erstwhile crime boss, played by Hell On Wheels’ Anson Mount.

As the film casually flits between the forge/heist story and the bonding relationship between John and his son, it’s a testament to director Philip Martin – who comes from a TV background where he’s learnt his trade by helping to bring Prime Suspect and Wallander crime stories to life – that it isn’t a complete disaster. In someone else’s hands, it very well could have been.

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Instead, The Forger has a delicate touch and a lot of the shots are interesting and unexpected without being jarring. It flows very smoothly and there’s an undercurrent of genuine love stemming from Travolta’s performance. After losing his own son, making a film about losing a son might have been cathartic and definitely quite close to the bone. I don’t want to read too much into Travolta’s choices, because that way madness lies, but it does really come across as though he cared about this one.

The Forger’s family scenes – with Travolta’s son Tye Sheridan and father Christopher Plummer – play really well, and while the tone of these scenes doesn’t gel with the heist elements of the plot, there’s good stuff here.

Overall, there’s not quite enough substance to sail the whole thing smoothly down the river, but it’s not bad by any stretch and the reviews have been a little harsh on what is actually a perfectly average film. No, you won’t watch it again, but neither will you probably regret watching it in the first place.

Criminal Activities (2015)

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 47% IMDb Rating – 5.8/10

Hoo boy, that title. That’s the worst title. I can’t imagine anyone involved could have wanted it. It’s maybe the most generic title I’ve ever seen. It’s so bad that even when I picked up the DVD, looked at the cover and saw that Michael Pitt (Hannibal, Boardwalk Empire) and Dan Stevens (The Guest, The Guest, THE GUEST) were Travolta’s co-stars in this, I still felt like I was drowning in the beigeness of it.

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The film itself – Jackie Earle Haley’s directorial debut – is an unfortunate mess. The plot, such as it is, involves Michael, Dan and the rest of the lads from their childhood gang borrowing money from a mob boss (Travolta) to invest in some sure-fire stocks that immediately collapse, leaving them out of pocket and in John’s. To pay off the debt, he wants them to kidnap a guy, because that guy’s friend kidnapped someone else. It’s convoluted and makes little sense, due to the fact that there’s a big twist coming at the end which will clarify most, if not all of it.

The actors are doing wayyy too much in the film – directed by an actor who clearly wants the actors to have room to act – and therein lies the fundamental problem. Apart from a great turn by Edi Gathegi (Gone Baby Gone, X-Men: First Class, Crank) it’s impossible to point a finger at anyone else in the cast and say ‘yep, you, good job’ because there’s just too much going on.

The twist is actually decent, but everything leading up to it is a headache. Working on a low budget, most of the scenes are dialogue-heavy, arduous and reliant on excessive coverage – so what you end up with is a film where a load of dudes sit in a room together and shout and swear at each other a lot. I wanted to take that final twist aside, buy it a drink, hug it, and reassure it that it deserved better.

I’m afraid to say there’s not much here to recommend, which is ironic given that it’s had the most positive reviews of the bunch.

I Am Wrath (2016)

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 13% IMDb Rating – 5.2/10

I Am Wrath is the worst film of these four by a long chalk.

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Here, John stars as a man who decides payback is needed when his wife (Rebecca de Mornay) is killed before his eyes. That’s really all there is, plot-wise. See, it turns out he’s a man with a very particular set of skills and yada yada yada off he goes.

The script – written by Paul ‘nope, nothing you’ve heard of’ Sloan – is so very, very bad. I am going to tell you how bad it is, so you don’t think I’m just whistlin’ Dixie here:

During his wife’s funeral, John tells the priest that he’s an atheist after the priest gives him a bible in his time of need. Later, Travolta flings this bible across the room angrily. He then stops, pulls a full Joey Tribbiani ‘smell-the-fart’, slowly approaches the discarded bible, picks it up and reads a line about wrath with the dumbest revelatory expression on his face as the music builds. He sees this as a sign that he should become wrath, despite his earlier insistence that he thinks religion is total garbage.

Later, when asked who he is, Travolta looks determinedly into a mirror and says “I am wrath” – he said the name of the movie you guys! Holy shit. Honestly, I could not believe how hackneyed the whole thing was, not to mention bizarre – the film regularly abandons its serious ‘violence begets violence’ tone whenever John’s BFF Christopher Meloni turns up, suddenly becoming a jokey buddy comedy.

This was hard to get through. Please avoid it at all costs, for there is nothing here to keep you warm at night.

Killing Season (2013)

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 11% IMDb Rating – 5.4/10

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De Niro and Travolta – together at last?

Well, the opening sequence gives us a bit of background on the reason we’re all here. Something bad happened during the Bosnian War that will bring our two main dudes together for some serious vengeance. The sequence is sepia, because past, and ohhhhh god, here comes the present…

It’s at this point that we discover that John is going to attempt an Eastern European accent. It is Not Good. It is not John Malkovich in Rounders, but it is Not Good and we are stuck with it for the duration.

His facial hair during this first scene is also completely ridiculous. I can’t adequately describe how bonkers it is, but try to imagine a werewolf that can only grow stubble carefully shaving a circle into its face. It’s a relief to find that they decided to tone this down for the rest of the film – he looks more like he’s wearing a black chinstrap from then on.

Despite the accent and the questionable chin beard, it’s a lot easier to buy Travolta as a man on a mission of vengeance during Killing Season than it was during I Am Wrath. He’s obviously jazzed to be working with De Niro and he’s knuckled down to bounce off him, keeping it low-key and making an effort not to overdo it.

As a result of this equilibrium, we also get a glimpse of a pre-Meet The Parents De Niro – which is very much welcomed, sweet lord – and the two men head into the second act ready to take each other on, hunt each other down and resolve those Bosnian sins of the past in the most violent way possible.

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The script – by proposed Tomb Raider reboot scribe Evan Daugherty – occasionally stumbles, but is solid enough. The direction is fine. It’s fine. It’s probably Mark Steven Johnson’s best film (but when his other major films are Daredevil and Ghost Rider, that’s not exactly a gush) and as the two leads hunt and trap each other, a lot of Predator love oozes out of the frame. Unfortunately, this is not Predator, but you could do worse on an evening than to sit through this instead (if you don’t own Predator).

…Oh my god you guys. We should totally watch Predator right now.

Until next time, and until the next rebirth of Mr Travolta, I bid you adieu.

Next time: the straight to DVD movies of John Cusack