John Travolta Needs His 'Mandy' Moment

The actor needs to start working with directors who’ll bring out the best in him again.

Face/Off
Paramount Pictures

It’s been a minute since a John Travolta movie made headlines for the right reasons. Last year, Gotti was so mercilessly trashed by critics that taking shots at the film at this point feels like kicking someone while they’re down. Of course, that didn’t stop the Razzies from getting some extra blows in for good measure. Elsewhere, Speed Kills is another recent stinker whose existence seems destined to rot in the most unflattering corners of Redbox. Travolta is becoming the Prince of VOD Hell, but his talent deserves so much better than this.

Unfortunately, the two-time Academy Award nominee looks set to remain in the fringes with his upcoming projects. Up first is Trading Paint, a sports drama where he plays a washed-up race car driver seeking redemption. Michael Madsen, another actor who used to make good movies, co-stars alongside him. After that, he’ll appear alongside Brendan Fraser and Morgan Freeman in The Poison Rose, which is a noir-inspired thriller about murder and mystery. The cast for this one is actually pretty good, but only time will tell if the movie is. Finally, he’ll star in Moose, a thriller that’s being directed by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst. The long-awaited Travolta renaissance won’t start with these flicks.

Still, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t looking forward to all of them. The current iteration of the actor’s career is quite fascinating in a bizarre way. Plus, not all of his recent fare has been downright awful. I Am Wrath is a moderately entertaining Taken knockoff that works just fine as mindless cinematic junk food. He was also quite good in Netflix’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, but the momentum from that series didn’t carry over into his subsequent roles. Of course, not being “downright awful” is a far cry from the days of Saturday Night Fever, Pulp Fiction, and Get Shorty.

Needless to say, Travolta isn’t the most sought after actor in Hollywood right now. However, one of his semi-recent performances showed that he’s still capable of producing great work when he wants to. Ti West’s In a Valley of Violence, which sees a pissed off Ethan Hawke out to avenge the death of his dog, is a brilliant Western that’s full of great performances. In the movie, Travolta plays a town marshal who gets caught in the crossfire of Hawke’s bullet storm, and he steals the show. Our own Rob Hunter even described his turn as “the best John Travolta performance in years.” Hunter was 100 percent correct in his assessment.

If In a Valley of Violence proved anything, it’s that Travolta excels when he can sink his teeth into worthwhile material and work with directors who strive to stand out from the pack. West is a consistently enjoyable filmmaker with a distinct style and his movies tend to be met with heaps of critical praise. He’s never worked with a massive budget, but he always finds great actors and gets strong performances out of them. If Travolta is destined to keep working in the low-budget arena for the foreseeable future, he could get his buzz back by working with more filmmakers like West.

One of the biggest attractions of low-budget movies is that they’re more likely to be bolder, daring, and original. People take notice of movies that buck the norm and present established actors in a whole new light. If Travolta lends his talents to this kind of material then it’s only a matter of time before people start appreciating his efforts again. He’s experienced downturns in the past and returned to prominence after all; Travolta’s box office stock wasn’t at its highest in the ’80s, but his performance in Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller Blow Out caught the eye of Quentin Tarantino, which ultimately led to the director casting him in Pulp Fiction.

Travolta should look at the career trajectory of his Face/Off co-star Nicolas Cage for inspiration. Like Travolta, Cage has also fallen from Hollywood’s grace over the last decade or so, mostly starring in mediocre action movies and thrillers. Every once in a while, however, Cage works with some bona fide auteurs and reminds people of just how great he is. Movies like Joe, Mom and Dad, and Mandy are prime examples of buzzworthy Cage projects that were all helmed by visionary directors and generated some considerable buzz.

Since Mandy, Cage has been all the rage again. Furthermore, some of his upcoming movies are also likely to make some noise. In Prisoners of the Ghostland, he’ll be working with Japanese maverick Sion Sono, whose flicks are wholly original and exciting. Cage is also starring in Richard Stanley’s adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s Color Out of Space, which promises to be something special indeed. Stanley might not be a household name outside of genre film circles, but he’s beloved by his fans because his work is unique. Maybe Cage won’t spearhead blockbusters ever again, but it’s only a matter of time before he works with a mainstream director of note who trusts him as a leading man.

There are countless filmmakers working in that realm of cinema who could make Travolta a creative force once again as well. Then maybe he’d catch the eye of a popular director who’ll re-introduce him to the mainstream with open arms. I hope that happens. I miss the old Travolta.

"Kieran is like a steady flame that refuses to waver in the breeze, eternally burning and guiding us to a better world." - Ian West