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Life on the Line

D: David Hackl / 93m

Cast: John Travolta, Kate Bosworth, Devon Sawa, Gil Bellows, Julie Benz, Ryan Robbins, Ty Olsson, Sharon Stone

The life of a lineman – in Texas at least – is one that is continually fraught with danger and the prospect of death. This is the message that Life on the Line reminds us of throughout its (brief enough) running time, and especially when said linemen make mistake after mistake as they go about their daily work (the movie will have health and safety experts choking on their popcorn; real linemen will either be laughing at the many, many inaccuracies the movie exhibits or shaking their heads in prolonged disbelief). But, hey, this is still the fourth most dangerous job in the world.

We’re given an example of this right at the start when the actions of cocky lineman Beau Ginner (Travolta) lead to the death of his brother, who’s also his crew boss. Circumstances lead also to the death of his brother’s wife; this leaves Beau’s neice, Bailey, in his care (what the authorities were thinking is a question the movie avoids asking altogether). Fast forward ten years and Bailey (Bosworth) is on the verge of going to college, while Beau has become Mr Safety, and a well respected crew boss like his brother. The complete overhaul and replacement of thousands of miles of electrical lines throughout Texas has Beau’s crew working flat out to meet the utility company’s deadline.

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Two new workers – Bailey’s ex-boyfriend Duncan (Sawa), and new neighbour Eugene (Robbins) – bring their own problems to the mix, with Duncan treating Bailey in an unexplained, dismissive manner, and Eugene having trouble with PTSD since returning from Iraq. He’s distant to his wife, Carline (Benz), and is away a lot due to his work. Meanwhile, Bailey is trying to reconnect with Duncan because she has something important to tell him, while also fending off the unwanted attentions of ex-con Danny (Olsson). And Beau is coming under increasing pressure from the utility company, even to the point of being asked to “take risks” if it will get the job done sooner rather than later.

By now it’s clear that all these separate storylines are likely to converge, and the movie makes it clear that this will be the case as it keeps counting down the days to a great storm. Until then the movie busies itself with some low-key soap opera dramatics mixed with random scenes such as Beau talking down an angry biker in a bar. Bailey reveals her secret to Duncan, and to Beau; Danny’s unwanted attentions escalate to the point where he targets Carline; Eugene’s paranoia leads him to climb an electrical pylon with the intention of killing himself; and a trainwreck causes Beau no end of problems, including one of his crew being injured. As the storm rages around them all, matters of life and death arise, and Beau has to make a terrible choice.

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Whatever you may think about John Travolta and his recent run of movies, he’s still an actor to watch, even if his performances border on the perfunctory these days. Life on the Line is no different to any other movie he’s made in the last few years, and here he does the bare mimimum in terms of characterisation and emoting, a situation his fans will be overly familiar with. There’s no spark or energy in his portrayal, no attempt to overcome the many implausibilities of the script, or the diffidence with which screenwriters Primo Brown, Peter I. Horton, Marvin Peart and Dylan Scott have created the part of Beau. Instead he goes through the motions, and in some scenes, comes close to looking bored (when Beau harangues his crew about safety and shows them pictures of electrical burn injuries, Travolta’s delivery lacks the edge such a scene needs to show Beau’s doing this because he cares about his crew).

But Travolta’s paycheck-grabbing performance is the least of the movie’s worries. The aforementioned script is quite a stinker, cobbled together and assembled on screen by Hackl and his production team with all the finesse of pre-school children being asked to build a rocket ship: you can give them all the directions and tools they’ll ever need, but they won’t know what to do with them. It’s much the same here, with Travolta and his fellow cast members continually left high and dry by the vagaries of the script and the vague intentions of Hackl, DoP Brian Pearson, and editor Jamie Alain. All three share an inability of purpose that ruins the movie from the word go. And some of the dialogue – straight from the Holy Land of Cliché – is so dire that no one can rescue it and make it sound even halfway credible.

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The narrative doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny, the subplots scream “Filler!”, and the denouement is so laughable and corny and hackneyed and clichéd and just plain stupid that you won’t believe your eyes and ears. As a drama, Life on the Line is the equivalent of a DOA, and should be approached as warily, as if you were, say, taking a hot dish out of the oven without the benefit of oven mitts. This is bad on a level that only low-budget movies can achieve, and while the production has attracted a reasonably talented cast, it struggles to be both interesting and dramatic, and succeeds only in giving new meaning to the word ‘risible’.

Rating: 3/10 – “no one here gets out alive,” said The Doors, and Life on the Line is a perfect example of a movie that fits that kind of doom-laden vibe; blandly executed and overly reliant on plot rehashes we’ve seen a million times before, the movie stumbles along in search of someone to steer it out of the murky backwaters of its own making, and along the way, makes you wonder if anyone associated with it could ever be happy with the way it’s turned out.

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