Total Recall

Total Recall: John Travolta's Best Movies

We run down the best-reviewed work of the Old Dogs star.

by | November 23, 2009 | Comments

John Travolta

Some actors are lucky enough to make the jump from television to film stardom. Some are lucky enough to get their careers back on track after falling off the A-list. But how many stars have been able to do both — and walk away virtually unscathed from the flaming wreckage of Battlefield Earth in the bargain? Only John Travolta, ladies and gentlemen. Travolta buddies up with Robin Williams in this weekend’s Old Dogs, which inspired us to take a look back at a filmography far more varied than you might remember. Dramas? Comedies? Thrillers? Cartoons? Heck, Travolta’s done ’em all — and he’s been doing it for more than 30 years, too. It’s high time he got the Total Recall treatment, wouldn’t you say?


10. Primary Colors

Based on a thinly fictionalized account of the 1992 presidential campaign written by Joe Klein (who hid, for a time, behind the nom de plume “Anonymous”), and featuring cameos by Geraldo Rivera, Charlie Rose, Larry King, and Bill Maher as themselves, 1998’s Primary Colors could easily have been overshadowed by the real-life circus that followed Bill Clinton’s administration during both of his terms — but director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Elaine May had been a creative team for decades, and their comfort with one another, as well as a terrific cast, made Colors one of the better-reviewed films of the year. Travolta, tasked with providing a caricature of a sitting President that was still layered enough to carry an entire movie, passed with flying colors; as John R. McEwen of Film Quips write, “John Travolta continues to establish himself as one of the best actors of the younger generation, and this may be his best job yet.”


9. Grease

You might be shocked to find Grease so far down on the list, but you probably shouldn’t be — Randal Kleiser’s 1978 adaptation of the Jacobs and Casey musical was always more of an audience phenomenon than a critical darling, and although an 84 percent Tomatometer rating is nothing to sniff at, Grease is, in the words of the Apollo Guide’s Scott Weinberg, “a critic-proof movie.” Even Grease‘s most fervent fans can’t help but recognize the inherent silliness of actors in their 20s singing and dancing their way through high school, but what drew people to the movie then — and what even the stuffiest critics were forced to recognize — is the effortless charisma of the movie’s stars, as well as the instantly catchy songs that made the stage version such a hit. Just one year removed from Saturday Night Fever, Travolta continued his hot streak with a performance that ReelViews’ James Berardinelli described as “a riot,” going on to say, “Alternately swaggering to prove his “coolness” and re-affirming his ability on the dance floor, the actor gives the kind of performance that’s perfect for the role.”


8. Get Shorty

Its ill-advised, 10-years-later sequel may have been titled Be Cool, but it’s really 1995’s Get Shorty that has all kinds of cool, thanks to a Scott Frank script that does a tremendous job of adapting the Elmore Leonard novel that shares its name, assured direction from Barry Sonnenfeld, and a crackerjack cast that included the combined talents of Delroy Lindo, Dennis Farina, Rene Russo, Gene Hackman, and a resurgent, post-Pulp Fiction Travolta as gangster/cineaste Chili Palmer. Freed from the direct-to-video ghetto and clearly enjoying the opportunity to share a great script with a talented cast, Travolta earned the praise of critics like the Washington Post’s Desson Thomson, who wrote, “This comic potboiler about gangsters in Hollywood would be a great piece of fun even without Travolta. But as a loan shark from Miami with a charming bedside manner and bigtime movie dreams, he raises the fun quotient into the sublime.”


7. Bolt

Travolta kicked off the 21st century with Battlefield Earth — and things didn’t get much better for most of the decade, with the Travolta filmography enduring a string of high-profile duds like Swordfish and The Punisher. The last couple of years, however, have brought another re-ascendancy for the actor; though his movies haven’t always prospered critically (see: Wild Hogs), they do tend to make money — and a few of them have managed to succeed on both fronts. Case in point: 2008’s Bolt, which gave Travolta the opportunity to pair up with tween queen Miley Cyrus (and briefly rescuscitate his long-dormant recording career with a soundtrack duet) in the tale of a deluded canine star who teams up with a cat and a hamster to save his owner from a fictional evil genius. Bolt may have looked like just another over-caffeinated kid flick, but beneath its bright CGI visuals beat a sweet, old-school Disney heart, reflected in a tender, intelligent Chris Williams/Dan Fogelman script almost entirely devoid of gratuitous pop culture references and scatological humor. The movie’s less aggressive tone was appreciated by critics like Combustible Celluloid’s Jeffrey M. Anderson, who wrote, “John Travolta’s earnest, gentle voice performance as the title character goes a long way in making this Disney animated feature a winner.”


6. Blow Out

The early-to-mid 1980s were unkind to John Travolta — but before the career-suspending trifecta of Staying Alive, Two of a Kind, and Perfect, Travolta had the opportunity to star in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out. A bleak thriller that successfully juggles a number of heady themes, Blow Out functions as both a darkly paranoid action movie and a savvy commentary on post-Watergate paranoia — not to mention the nature of filmmaking itself. It’s a far cry, in other words, from the blockbuster crowd-pleasers that made Travolta a superstar; perhaps unsurprisingly, it was almost completely abandoned by fans of Tony Manero and Danny Zuko. Which was unfortunate, because the role of Jack Terry, a sound technician who believes he’s accidentally recorded evidence of an assassination, required Travolta to deliver acting unvarnished by white suits, the Bee Gees, or Olivia Newton-John — and he proved more than up to the task. Blow Out eventually found an audience over time, thanks to the home video market, but critics were always on board; in the words of Paul Schrodt of Slant Magazine, “Blow Out is not known as one of Brian De Palma’s horror movies, but of all his films, it’s the one that feels most like a nightmare.”


5. Saturday Night Fever

A movie so successful it single-handedly jump-started the white leisure suit industry, the Bee Gees’ chart dominance of the late 1970s, and John Travolta’s acting career, Saturday Night Fever had humble origins (it was inspired by a New York magazine story later discovered to have been fabricated) and a plot that came in second (or third) to its soundtrack. But hey, it was a pretty spectacular soundtrack — and Fever also boasted a hungry, nuanced performance from Travolta, who embodied the desperation of Brooklyn dreamer Tony Manero with so much raw talent that he hardly seemed like the same guy starring as goofball Vinnie Barbarino in Welcome Back, Kotter. Saturday Night Fever was a huge commercial sensation, but it was also a dance movie with a yearning, wounded heart, and Travolta’s star turn was recognized by critics like Janet Maslin of the New York Times, who effused, “Mr. Travolta is deft and vibrant, and he never condescends to the character, not even in a scene that has Tony and Stephanie arguing about whose Romeo and Juliet it is, Zeffirelli’s or Shakespeare’s.”


4. Carrie

Before Brian De Palma gave John Travolta one of the meatiest roles of his career in Blow Out, he reached out and gave the young actor his first big break as one of Sissy Spacek’s teen tormentors in the big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s first hit novel. It’s fashionable to dump on King’s work, and you might not expect any movie whose climax hinges on a strategically placed bucket of pig blood to find much purchase with serious film critics, but Carrie is not only one of the earliest high school horror movies, it’s one of the best. Anchored by a typically powerful performance from Sissy Spacek (not to mention Piper Laurie as her psychotic mother), Carrie drew praise from most critics — including Roger Ebert, who called it “an absolutely spellbinding horror movie, with a shock at the end that’s the best thing along those lines since the shark leaped aboard in Jaws.”


3. Hairspray

Taking the musical stage adaptation of a John Waters movie and turning it back into a film doesn’t seem like the most intelligent way to score a hit movie, but when you’re armed with John Travolta in a fat suit — as a woman — anything can happen. In the case of 2007’s Hairspray, “anything” included a $200 million-plus gross, a Golden Globe nomination for Travolta, and critical praise from scribes like Heather Huntington of, who wrote, “I will confess that Travolta totally turned me around. A mountain of a woman in his female fat suit, he commits 150% to the role.” As Edna, the strict, reclusive mother of Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky), Travolta not only partially repented for his involvement in Wild Hogs earlier in the year, he made Christopher Walken seem like a believable suburban middle-class dad. Yes, Hairspray has some important things to say about race relations in the early ’60s (and by extension, today) — but even without its trenchant subtext, it succeeds as an eminently likable film. In the words of DVDTown’s John J. Puccio, “How can you not like a movie in which John Travolta and Christopher Walken sing a love song to each other?”


2. Face/Off

There’s something to be said for an actor who knows who to deliver a quietly understated performance. There’s also something to be said for chomping down on the scenery and gnawing it until there’s nothing left, which is exactly what Travolta and Nicolas Cage got to do in John Woo’s Face/Off — and they got to pretend to be each other in the bargain, thanks to a delightfully absurd script involving terrorism, face transplants, and doves. Woo’s had a bumpy time in Hollywood, to say the least, but Paramount gave him complete control over Face/Off, and his untrammelled vision shines in an action thriller that manages to be both over-the-top ridiculous and filled to the brim with laughs, brilliant set pieces, and white-knuckle entertainment. Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek summed up the movie’s unlikely charm when she wrote, “Florid, passionate, frequently hilarious and loaded with messy emotions that nobody in his or her right mind should even attempt to explain, it’s operatic in its nutball intensity.”


1. Pulp Fiction

A lot of people loved Pulp Fiction in 1994, but it’s hard to imagine that any of them loved it more than John Travolta. Consider, if you will, that the future Vincent Vega was limping his way through Look Who’s Talking Now just the year before Fiction came out — and making a cameo as himself in the alleged comedy Boris and Natasha: The Movie the year before that. It had been a very long time since most people had thought of Travolta as a real actor — but it had been even longer since anyone as talented as Quentin Tarantino had availed themselves of Travolta’s long-slumbering talent. Here, armed with a classic Tarantino script, surrounded by a talented cast, and exhibiting a new level of physical presence, Travolta was one of Pulp Fiction‘s many revelations, and he justifiably used his work here as a launchpad for one of the most unlikely second acts in Hollywood history. “It’s the movie equivalent,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle, “of that rare sort of novel where you find yourself checking to see how many pages are left and hoping there are more, not fewer.”

In case you were wondering, here are Travolta’s top ten movies according RT users’ scores:

1. Pulp Fiction — 96%
2. Bolt — 89%
3. Hairspray — 88%
4. Carrie — 87%
5. Saturday Night Fever — 82%
6. Get Shorty — 81%
7. Blow Out — 81%
8. Grease — 79%
9. A Love Song for Bobby Long — 78%
10. Face/Off — 78%

Take a look through Travolta’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Old Dogs.

Finally, here’s Travolta as a teenager in a commercial for Honda motorcycles: