John Travolta has had a very strange career, alternating from working with acclaimed outsider directors like Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction & Brian De Palma in Blow Out to working on huge piles of hot garbage like Battlefield Earth & The Devil’s Rain. Strange as it is, this dichotomy isn’t entirely unique & can more or less be summed up as The Nic Cage Career Model. Travolta’s talents & natural charisma are immense, but often confusingly wasted on the trashiest of trash cinema. Travolta himself even solidified the Cage connection by essentially playing Cage at his hammiest in the ludicrously over-the-top action thriller Face/Off.
Perhaps the best way to experience the full range of Travolta’s full range of immense talent & laughable awfulness is in a double feature of June’s Movie of the Month, the 1981 political thriller Blow Out & Swordfish, a hopelessly trashy political thriller that arrived thirty years later & much worse for wear. Besides Travolta’s role & the political thriller genre connection, Swordfish & Blow Out both attempt meta-commentary about the nature of film itself. Blow Out accomplishes this slyly through depictions of a film of a car accident being reconstructed step by step, sound first. Swordfish, on the other hand, clumsily announces that it’s talking about movies by allowing Travolta’s central villain to deconstruct the intricacies of Dog Day Afternoon in the very first scene. Inviting viewers to conjure up memories of a much better film doesn’t do Swordfish any favors. Neither does watching Travolta’s performance in context of Blow Out.
In Blow Out, Travolta plays a befuddled everyman sound technician who’s in over his head when he gets dragged into a world of political intrigue. In Swordfish, he’s an evil Derek Zoolander-type with a terrible haircut who’s main business is political intrigue. The interesting thing about watching Blow Out & Swordfish back to back is that they not only exemplify the heights & depths of Travolta’s talents & hamming, but they also validate & demonize those two dueling halves of his career. In Blow Out, we’re treated to Good Travolta, who just wants to tell the world the truth about a car accident because he feels like they have a right to know. In Swordfish, the much less savory Bad Travolta robs banks & forces hackers to operate at gunpoint while receiving oral sex just to see what they’re made of.
Blow Out is a perfectly constructed political thriller from the director of classics like Scarface & Carrie. Swordfish is a disgustingly crass fusion of The Matrix & Pulp Fiction sensibilities, laden with some of the worst CGI I’ve ever seen in a film, and directed by the dude who gave the world the Nic Cage Gone in Sixty Seconds remake. In tandem, both films share very little common ground, but do a competent job of capturing the totality of John Travolta’s varied career as an actor. As per usual, Good (Travolta) triumphs over Evil (Travolta) here and Blow Out is an objectively much better film, but to truly appreciate Travolta’s career as an actor in its totality you do have to roll around in the trash every now & then and he is hilariously dedicated to the cause in the grotesquely idiotic Swordfish.