It's hard to pinpoint exactly when John Travolta stopped doing it for me. I wouldn't peg it during his famously rock bottom years (roughly between 1983's Stayin' Alive and 1994's Pulp Fiction, AKA the Look Who's Talking Years), but rather sometime in the past few decades, when Travolta decided he wanted to stretch himself by going increasingly, well, batshit crazy onscreen.
For the record, I'm no Travolta hater. He's excellent in earlier films, as Danny Zuko in Grease, Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever (and even in the aforementioned Stayin' Alive), and Bud Davis in Urban Cowboy. The man's proven his talent and shown his range over the years, which is why it's particularly disappointing to see him hamming it up in films like the recent Wild Hogs and Old Dogs, two comedies that both star Travolta, have titles that coincidentally rhyme, and feature grown men getting hit in the crotch in their respective trailers.
But broad and painfully unfunny comedy is only one hallmark of the type of film John Travolta has become known for in recent years. The other is arguably worse: Travolta has somehow become Hollywood's go-to actor for over-the-top bad guy roles. The kind of roles that make you say "WTF?" as you sit in a darkened theater staring at the scenery-chewing, gleefully unpredictable one-man circus on display. The kind that might call for Travolta to shave his head, grow a goatee, shoot first and spout witty one-liners later, have sex with prostitutes, and act like he just does not give a f***, which is exactly what he does in this week's buddy-spy action-comedy, From Paris with Love.
Sadly, Live Wire Travolta no longer feels fresh. And whereas it used to amuse me, I now only feel a faint tingle of something – is it nostalgia? - coupled by an overpowering sense of sadness for what used to be. So take a trip down memory lane with me to explore seven of Travolta's most wacky, wild, and crazy roles and figure out when exactly he went from kooky to creepy.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
The role of slick, smooth-talking hit man Vincent Vega was just what Travolta needed to break out of movie jail in the mid-90s. He'd just spent a decade and change making tepid rom-coms (Two of a Kind, with Grease co-star Olivia Newton-John), dramas (Perfect, with Jamie Lee Curtis), and TV movies (Eyes of an Angel), and was becoming best known for the increasingly unsuccessful Look Who's Talking films. Making the most of Pulp Fiction's crackling dialogue, his famous "Royale with cheese" monologue, and his onscreen chemistry with Samuel L. Jackson as Jules Winnfield, Travolta gave us a charismatic, idiosyncratic, intellectual assassin we could get behind – and in turn, he received a Best Actor nod along with the career jumpstart he needed.
Broken Arrow (1996)
Captain Riley Hale (Christian Slater) and Major Vic "Deak" Deakins (John Travolta) are total Air Force besties and good-natured competitors. Until, that is, Travolta goes psycho, tries to kill Christian Slater, and steals two nuclear warheads. Travolta's Deakins is a simmering-beneath-the-surface kind of crazy, gleefully bad and yet subtle in comparison to his later villains. An early classic.
Travolta's ability to go from good bad in the blink of an eye played into his next great role as FBI agent Sean Archer in John Woo's Face/Off. The gimmick was brilliant; it allowed two of Hollywood's greatest over-the-top actors to "trade" faces and play both hero and bad guy in one film. Travolta's scenes as villain Castor Troy (pretending to be Archer) are especially fun to watch because he exercises a key strength that he seems to have lost in recent years: restraint.
Battlefield Earth (2000)
No words can truly do Travolta's turn as the dreadlocked alien overlord Terl in Battlefield Earth, based on the book by Scientology leader L. Ron Hubbard, so just watch this:
The sheen of Travolta's triumphant career comeback was clearly wearing off by the time he starred in Dominic Sena's Swordfish as Gabriel Shear, the fast-living benefactor who hires Hugh Jackman's hacker to steal billions from the U.S. government. Never mind the overzealous, testosterone-laden dialogue; who could take Travolta seriously rocking that slicked-back pageboy haircut, let alone as a smarmy criminal mastermind?
The Punisher (2004)
Travolta toned it down a smidge to play mob boss Howard Saint, Thomas Jane's nemesis in 2004's The Punisher. Here, his villainy is slightly more understandable; Saint's just a family man who holds Frank Castle responsible for the death of his criminal son. Of course, the vendetta swings both ways and by the time Castle's killed his way through Saint's entire underworld empire, Travolta's strapped to the hood of a car in the middle of a parking lot fire shaped like a skull.
Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)
This is where we've seen that bald-with-facial hair Travolta villain before: in the completely unnecessary 2009 remake of The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3. His name is Ryder, and he's a grinning, mustachioed, and volatile thug – we know he means business because he has a neck tattoo, his crew shoots innocent subway passengers, and he YELLS INTO WALKIE TALKIES! He also says bad words in the most unconvincing manner possible.
Bonus: Hairspray (2007)
Ah, yes. I know where Travolta officially went over to the dark side... it was the moment he went undercover in a fat suit and 1960s ladies' dress to take over the world with his diabolical plan to charm his way into the hearts of unsuspecting movie musical fans. *shudder*