The action thriller Speed Kills, recently released in selected US cinemas, bears all the hallmarks of a modern John Travolta vehicle: guns, beautiful young women, and its star sporting the same terracotta-coloured skin and strange hair he’s had for at least a decade.
It’s undeniably hard out there for a 60-something movie star, particularly one with not the largest range, but Speed Kills marks the latest curious career move for Travolta, a man who has already unexpectedly bounced back from one major drop to C-list stardom in his 30 year career, and seems to now be waiting in vain for lightning to strike twice.
Travolta in Pulp Fiction
Glance over Travolta’s work in the last five years and you will see a pattern emerge, one that bears striking resemblance to the career trajectories of many of his contemporaries, from Dennis Quaid to Kevin Costner. There are the Liam Neeson-style vigilante thrillers, the brief dalliances with TV, the doomed vanity projects.
But while some have learned lessons along the way, notably Travolta’s Face/Off costar Nicolas Cage, who has staved off total career implosion with smart, pulpy choices that wink at his perceived real-life kookiness, Travolta has doubled down on his worst impulses.
Speed Kills follows on from Gotti, an ill-fated biopic inspired by the life of famed New York mobster John Gotti. Stuck in development hell for close to a decade, with Al Pacino and Lindsay Lohan both attached at various points in time, Gotti ended up directed by a cast member from Entourage, while its June release was marred by its production company using Trump-esque “fake news” tactics targeting film critics who had given it bad reviews. It currently holds a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and went straight to DVD in the UK.
John Travolta with Ikon Magazine Editor in Chief Joe Alvarez
The film also represented much of what Travolta has been drawn to throughout his career – bloated, expensive passion projects, often co-starring his wife Kelly Preston, and widely out of step with what audiences are actually craving.
There was a time, around the mid-Nineties, when Travolta was one of the biggest stars in the world, and projects built entirely on his colourful line readings and outlandish on-screen presence weren’t quite so peculiar.
But in 2018, amid endless gossip about his personal life and a series of oddball side-projects (among them a 2012 Christmas album with his Grease leading lady Olivia Newton-John), they feel of a different time entirely.
Travolta, it should be said, has been here before. In the years before his unexpected comeback in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Travolta was something of a joke, famed for kitsch musicals like Grease and Saturday Night Fever, and for spending a decade in the cinematic wilderness.
The Eighties were a rough time for Travolta, from the shocking aerobics romcom Perfect to the cringeworthy May/December romance Moment by Moment with Lily Tomlin.
The baby-talk nightmare that was Look Who’s Talking was an inexplicable monster-sized hit that spawned two sequels, but only perpetuated his image as a goofy himbo permanently magnetised to bad cinema.
“It was about the month that I had started Look Who’s Talking III and I thought, Okay, maybe this is it,” Travolta told Charlie Rose in 1994. “You know, maybe the good offers will no longer be around the corner, and maybe they’re further away than they’ve ever been, but you’ve had 20 years of it – a good run in film – and you know, maybe you’ve made some mistakes, but you’ve also done some good things, and you’ve changed people’s lives and if you have to say goodbye in this fashion, that’s not so bad. And upon that thought, I got the call from Quentin Tarantino.”
Tarantino has been quoted as referring to Travolta as one of “the greatest movie stars Hollywood ever produced”, and reportedly enraged Pulp Fiction’s financiers by blowing off Daniel Day-Lewis, who desperately wanted the role of Vincent Vega in the film.
But Travolta is marvellous in the role, laconic and cool and still sharp on his feet, while the film’s surprise success at the box office saw him heralded as Hollywood’s comeback king. A run of smashes commenced, from the Elmore Leonard adaptation Get Shorty to action thrillers including Broken Arrow and Face/Off.
Travolta, earning $20 million paychecks at the peak of his post-Pulp fame, was seemingly unstoppable, surrounded by “yes-men” and capable of getting even the strangest projects off the ground.
That appeared to be the case for 2000’s Battlefield Earth, an infamous sci-fi disaster adapted from a novel by L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, Travolta’s religion of choice.
Dubbed one of the worst films ever made and featuring a Travolta concealed under enormous dreadlocks, Battlefield Earth remains his goofiest work to date, criticised for its odd direction, horrendous dialogue and religious subtext – with many critics arguing that it was a stealth recruitment film for Scientology.
Despite Travolta going to the ends of the earth to plug the movie, it was an enormous flop, and a major contributor to the bankruptcy of production company Franchise Pictures four years later.
Speaking to the Daily Beast in 2014, Travolta indicated that he had no regrets about the project (“If we had to do it over again, I would still do it. It was a moment where I could say, ‘I had all the power in the world and could do whatever I wanted.’ Not a lot of people get that opportunity, and I did what I wanted to do”), and appeared to shrug off any idea that it permanently damaged his career.
While Battlefield Earth didn’t stop him working, the Noughties gave way to a run of unintentionally funny star vehicles (including the cyber-crime thriller Swordfish and Be Cool, his depressing reunion with Pulp Fiction leading lady Uma Thurman) and projects almost impressive in how quickly they’ve been forgotten (among them the psychotic-stepfather thriller Domestic Disturbance, and the Disney comedy Wild Hogs.)
There were bright spots, notably a turn in drag in the 2007 remake of Hairspray, but that seemed to give way to little but mean jokes about his personal life, while media focus began to drift to his appearance – particularly his consistently gonzo facial hair, which occasionally bears a striking resemblance to velcro.
A Pulp Fiction-esque comeback was mooted in 2015 when, like many of yesterday’s A-list movie stars, Travolta transitioned to TV, joining the cast of the miniseries The People vs OJ Simpson, from TV super-producer Ryan Murphy.
Travolta with Samuel L Jackson in the brilliant Pulp Fiction
But for all the pre-show buzz his casting received, Travolta ended up somewhat vanishing once the miniseries debuted, his work, comprised of little but flamboyant eyebrows and a number of odd vocal tics, comfortably overshadowed by Sarah Paulson and Sterling K Brown – arguably the ensemble’s least-known faces going in, but now two awards show regulars who have mastered the art of jumping between critically-acclaimed TV and mainstream film.
And any leverage the show may have given to Travolta’s movie career was quickly vanquished, used up on getting Gotti finally made, along with a forthcoming thriller in which he plays the deranged fan of a movie star. The latter is directed by and inspired by the life of none other than Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst: “Maybe my favourite experience I’ve had,” Travolta told TMZ in April. “He’s so generous and he’s such an artist.”
If anything, playing a stalker in a Fred Durst movie titled Moose only gave further ammunition to Travolta’s detractors, whose jokes have long been amplified by Travolta’s resistance to the spotlight.
For all his fame, Travolta remains something of a tight-lipped superstar, rarely giving interviews and largely vanishing in between projects, which themselves are few and far between (he’s made just four studio movies in the past decade). But it’s also been something of a poisoned chalice, leading to a number of incongruous public appearances that spark more nervous laughter than they do sincere smiles.
There was the time he randomly appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show to fly the studio audience to Australia on his private plane, or the moment at the 2014 Oscars in which he elaborately butchered Idina Menzel’s name, then uncomfortably pawed at her face at the same ceremony a year later, or those viral pictures of him and an apparently stone-faced Scarlett Johansson, photographs so unusual that Johansson was forced to defend him via the woefully unsuccessful statement of: “There is nothing strange or creepy about John Travolta.”
It all builds to an image of a star who just doesn’t work in the internet age, where small moments of weirdness are leapt upon and turned into memes and GIFs, but also help form a narrative – one that is, in Travolta’s case at least, decidedly unflattering.
Amid the outpouring of tales to emerge in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal last year, Radar Online (via the Daily Beast) unearthed a 2000 police report in which a male masseur accused Travolta of “sexual battery.”
The case was later “closed unfounded”. But the star has also been accused of similar behaviour since, with two further accusers eventually dropping their complaints in 2012. Travolta’s lawyer Marty Singer had previously called the accusations “absurd and ridiculous”.
In 2014, Travolta told the Daily Beast that he has long chosen to ignore the speculation about his private life, or the numerous individuals who have leveled accusations at him. “I don’t care that much about it,” he said. “Other people may attack it back more than I do, but I let all the media stuff go a long time ago because I can’t control it. I think that’s why it persists, to some degree.”
He also said that he’s only truly been hurt once, when news outlets began to speculate over the death of his son Jett, who died from a seizure at the age of 16 in 2009. “I felt like that was the lowest I’d ever felt,” he said. “Sex stuff is always going to be interesting to somebody, but you stay away from family. You really should. With that, I always felt like the media—not all of the media, but parts of it—went too low there.”
It is understandable why Travolta would keep his distance from the world’s press, who have spent nearly four decades gossiping about his personal life, his faith and his marriage. But when his work becomes just as unusual as the image the media has formed of him, all hair and hands and unintentional comedy, it’s a sign that things may have gone too far off-track.
Travolta rose to fame in an era where publicists were able to squash negative stories about their clients with ease, while having People Magazine on your speed-dial meant a quick photoshoot and a soft-pedal interview could be arranged in as much time as it takes to order a pizza.
But that was 20 years ago, and while several of Travolta’s A-list peers have managed the leap into modern celebrity via Instagram and challenging, adult roles in TV and film, he has largely stayed the same, cocooned in a bubble of personal publicists and bad star vehicles. He’s a relic of a different time, and struggling to find his place in a world that has evolved far beyond him.