Travolta is larger than life and wearing it well

His resurgent career brings him to Baltimore as another macho rogue

March 29, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

John Travolta remembers his own personal Liberation Day.

It came not long after he'd starred in Pulp Fiction, director Quentin Tarantino's whip-smart, ultra-violent ode to American popular fiction. The 1994 film earned kudos from every corner of the globe, instantly made Tarantino the most influential filmmaker of his day and rescued Travolta's career from the kind of doldrums that usually end with the star headlining a soon-to-be-canceled television series.

It also marked a shift in Travolta's style of acting, giving him an excuse to move from one emotional range to the other. It unleashed the oversized actor in Travolta, the one we've seen in such recent films as Broken Arrow, Swordfish, The General's Daughter and his new movie, Basic, in which he plays a hard-living ex-Army Ranger who has to unravel the details of a military mutiny in the jungles of Panama. His performance is about as subtle as a jackhammer, and nearly as effective.

"When I first started acting, I couldn't go over the top," Travolta says during an interview in his Georgetown hotel room, just days before settling in Baltimore for the filming of Ladder 49, in which he's cast as the mentor of a firefighter played by Joaquin Phoenix. "In my formative years of acting, the iconic concepts were very European, were super-real. So I felt like, you must be so still that the camera would have to go inside your head. You were acting for tight close-ups, where barely a look, just a change in the pupil of your eye, was your communication.

"Pulp Fiction was the ultimate in reality acting," he insists. "I did nothing but allow thoughts to bleed through my eyes and be captured. And after it was over, I said, `OK, cool, not only have you done the last word on it, you broke new ground in film and you got an Academy Award nomination for it. Now, what else can we do?' "

The answer came shortly. In fact, the answer started becoming apparent with Get Shorty, a film in which he played a mob enforcer bringing a welcome dose of street reality to the Hollywood scene. The movie was a hit, and Travolta's reviews were fabulous (he was unjustly denied an Oscar nomination).

"Yeah, Get Shorty was a little bigger than life," he acknowledges. But the real change came with Broken Arrow, John Woo's action thriller about a rogue military pilot who gets hold of a nuclear warhead and decides to have some fun.

"I've seen these guys that are military," he says, smiling at the thrill of it all, "who smoke their cigarettes in really big ways, and their posture's a little overstated, and their thinking is really self-righteous."

That certainly describes Broken Arrow's Vic Deakins. And it describes the majority of roles Travolta, 49, has played in the seven years since that film opened. The performances are unapologetically outsized, and the actor insists he's having a blast playing them.

"I know very real people who are very theatrical, they're just bigger than life. I've watched men and women walk in and fill the room with their voice and their presence, that's real to them. Who's to say what real is? Subtle is the only reality?"

What he didn't expect, Travolta says, is to play so many roles where he plays a military man whose psyche has taken some nasty turns. That, too, started with Broken Arrow, continued even through the famously awful Battlefield Earth (in which he played an alien commander with a malignantly nasty attitude toward humans), and once again shows up in Basic.

"Those roles seem to have found me somehow," he says with a laugh and a shake of his head. "Although I did a U.S. Army commercial when I was a kid, I would never have thought initially that I'd be playing those types of roles. ... They're variations on a theme, a psychotic guy in the military.

"The discipline and organizational skills of the military are very stable and formal; I like that as a basis to lean on for a character," Travolta says. And once you master the mindset, "you get a little more freedom to break away from that. ... It's like how modern artists have to know how to paint a classic piece before they can mess it up."

Even when critics don't think much of his films these days, they usually praise Travolta's performances for the gusto he brings to them. He's become one of Hollywood's most visible, and most bankable, stars - not bad for someone whose career had pretty much tanked by the mid-'90s, only to be revived in a big way by Pulp Fiction.

Travolta nods his head in acknowledgment of his good fortune, but insists he was the last one to realize his career was in any sort of danger.

"There was only one moment when I thought about it," he says, "and it was two or three days before I got the script for Pulp Fiction. I was finishing up Look Who's Talking Now, but I wasn't getting anything else. I almost got offered The Player, with Robert Altman, a few years before that, and almost got the fireman movie with Ron Howard (Backdraft). But those were almosts; nothing else was happening. I wondered if this meant [my career] was tailing off. And then two days later ...

"It was a good ignorance," he remembers with a laugh. "If I had wallowed in it and gotten desperate, then people would have picked up that vibe."

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