Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Popcorn Love: John Travolta in Face/Off (1997) and Broken Arrow (1996)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on November 30, 2007


The mid-90s were truly a time of wonder for John Travolta. After re-invigorating his career with a leading role in perhaps the definitive movie of the decade, doors were suddenly opening left and right for the one-time has-been. Get Shorty was his next move, and it was indeed a wise one–a movie almost as funny as Pulp Fiction, and one were he wasn’t quite so overshadowed by the flashiness of the director (as if Barry Sonnenfeld could ever overshadow anyone). A couple of mediocre leading roles followed–White Man’s Burden, Phenomenon, Michael–before finding the two roles that would come to define the actor in my young mind.

Fact is, John Travolta was born to play bad dudes. I mean yeah, he’s decent at planing genial old guys, pretty good at playing stupid guys, and downright great at playing generally amicable gangsters, but he just never seems to have as much fun as he does when he’s playing unambiguous evildoers. That glean in his eye when he’s killing people for no real reason–it’s unmistakable. It amazes me that the only movie since these two to seem to notice this is 2001’s Swordfish, which is similarly awesome, albeit for slightly different, even trashier, reasons.

It’s no surprise that the middle parts of Face / Off are so much better than the bookends. Nicolas Cage actually makes for a surprisingly charismatic villain (his “If I were to let you…suck…on my tongue…would you be grateful?” come on remains an all-time classic), but he just seems more at home as cop Sean Archer, the role of righteousness, whereas Travolta seems to just be biding his time as a tightass good guy until he can really let loose as the amoral, hedonistic bad dude Castor Troy. His taunt to Sean upon visiting him in prison (where Sean is posing as Castor–it’s not really worth explaining if you haven’t seen the movie already) ranks as one of the most gleeful in the history of supervillainy:

“I have personally torched all the evidence that proves you’re you. So, wow, looks like you’re gonna be in here foorrrr….THE NEXT HUNDRED YEEEE-AAARS!! Now, I have GOT to go…I’ve got a government job to abuse, and, uh… a lonely wife to FUCK. Did I just say FUCK? I MEAN MAKE LOVE TO!”

Poetry in super-evil motion, truly. But the best thing about Travolta-as-Castor-as-Sean is how damn good at it he is. He seduces Sean’s wife Joan Allen with a romantic dinner (and has his second best line in the movie reading from Allen’s diary–“We haven’t made love in two months. What a loser.”), parents his daughter Jamie better than he did (“Dress up like Halloween…and ghouls will try to get in your pants”), albeit significantly more incestually, and even does his job way better than Sean did (though knowing his own evil plots did give him a slightly unfair leg up in that department). You feel like everyone probably would’ve been better off if Sean had just stayed in jail, and not gone around disrupting the newly idyllic situation–who wouldn’t want John Travolta as a badass husband/father/employee, anyway?

But despite being by far the superior movie–I must’ve seen that movie 10 times before I hit high school–it’s Broken Arrow that has the more memorable Travolta performance. This is at least slightly attributable to how little competition he has in the movie–a second-rate Christian Slater as the good guy, a pre-American Psycho Samantha Mathis as one of the most boring love interests in action movie history, and no particularly memorable performances as Travolta’s henchmen. And it’s also at least slightly attributable to how little of the movie Travolta spends disguising his inner villainy–it’s only like 20 minutes before he shows his true colors, and even before that he seems slightly demonic.

Mostly, though, it’s because Travolta is given free reign to be the most insane, intent fucking bad guy he’d ever play. This guy just loves, loves, loves being evil. He barely even needs any motivation to go rogue–I think he gets passed up for a promotion or something before the movie starts, which he evidently considers as enough of a slight to start a nuclear war. Once there, he has the absolute time of his life, squealing “I da MAN!” upon downing a helicopter full of military dudes, and programming the nuclear bomb to go off anyway despite there being no chance of his demands being met, unforgettably proclaiming “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke!” as his justification. Travolta’s best scene, though, is in his climactic fight with Christian Slater, on a moving train with the bomb five feet away, where they have the following exchange:

CS: “You’re out of your mind!”


CS: “I’m serious, Deak, your mind has taken a walk off the map.”

JT: “Maybe, but I’m still gonna kick your ass!

Travolta barely seems disappointed that he’s not going to get his bomb ransom money–in fact, it’s pretty obvious that the ransom was just an excuse to perpetuate more villainy. This is further substantiated by Travolta’s final scene, in which after having lost the fight to Christian Slater’s character (and honestly, who loses in a fight to Christian Slater?), the train crashes, and the bomb is catapulted by the crash right into where Travolta is standing. Rather than jump out of the way, Travolta stands firmly in the bomb’s path, with the most Satanic grin he can possibly manage–as if getting blown up by his own bomb is really what he wanted all along.

How do we get from these to Domestic Disturbance and Wild Hogs? C’mon, I bet this guy’s got at least one classic piece of foery left in him.


3 Responses to “Popcorn Love: John Travolta in Face/Off (1997) and Broken Arrow (1996)”

  1. Tal said

    Best line in Face/Off: Doctor walks in, asks Nicholas Cage, “What do you want from me?” Cage walks up, faceless, and replies, “I’ll give you one goddamn guess!”

  2. Andrew Unterberger said

    That’s a good ‘un. Plus, the reflection of pizza-face Cage is classic.

  3. Lots of Good information in your post, I favorited your site so I can visit again in the future, Thanks

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