The career of John Joseph Travolta has had its fair share of ups and downs (though in recent years it’s consisted mostly of downs). Inhabiting the strange netherworld of DtV movies nowadays, Travolta seems to be flitting from one career-killing project to another with no apparent concern for his legacy as an actor (something that could be attributed to a lot of other actors as well – eh, Nicolas Cage?). But overall, Travolta has had a great career, and appeared in several modern classics over the years, and this is reflected in the movies that make up the list below. The most recent movie in the list may be from 2008, but a recent return to form in The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (2016) hopefully will see the tide turn. But if it doesn’t, we’ll still have all these great movies to remember him by.
10 – Broken Arrow (1996) – $150,270,147
John Woo + John Travolta + Christian Slater + more exploding helicopters than you can shake an AK-47 at = a hundred and eight minutes of loud, dumb, spectacular fun. Not the greatest of movies on Travolta’s CV, nevertheless Broken Arrow is hugely enjoyable in a crass, leave-your-brain-at-the-door kind of way, and should best be looked on as a guilty pleasure. It features Travolta hamming it up like crazy (and smoking in the most affected way ever seen on screen), and delivering one of action cinema’s most memorable lines (courtesy of Speed scribe Graham Yost): “Would you mind not shooting at the thermonuclear weapons?”
9 – Phenomenon (1996) – $152,036,382
In the year that also saw Travolta play an angel in Michael, Phenomenon gave us a chance to see him as, possibly, the recipient of a gift from God. Newly imbued with super-intelligence and telekinesis after seeing a bright light in the sky, Travolta’s ordinary Joe becomes an object of fascination, and notions of faith arise too. It’s an uneven movie, but Travolta is good in the central role of George, and if the whole thing falls apart by the end it’s not because of bad intentions, but purely because the script paints itself into a corner it can’t get out of.
8 – Hairspray (2007) – $202,548,575
John Waters + John Travolta in a female body suit + song and dance numbers = one of Travolta’s most enjoyable movies. He may not have been everyone’s first choice for Edna Turnblad, but Travolta gives one of his most relaxed and engaging performances alongside “hubbie” Christopher Walken. A movie bursting with energy and giddy vitality, Hairspray is still as vibrant today as it was ten years ago, and Travolta is a big part of why that’s the case, reminding us that he can still move it and groove it.
7 – Pulp Fiction (1994) – $213,928,762
Quentin Tarantino’s second movie has been pulled part, analysed from the first frame to the last, and generally obsessed over by critics and fans alike ever since its release. It’s simply an incredible breath of fresh cinematic air, and remains a true one of kind over twenty years later. It’s also the movie that brought Travolta back in out of the cold after a career slowdown that had left those same critics and fans wondering if he’d ever get his career back on track after a string of duds that included Two of a Kind (1983) and Chains of Gold (1991). In terms of his performance, it’s arguable that he’s never been better, and his scenes with Uma Thurman are as mesmerising now as they were back then.
6 – Saturday Night Fever (1977) – $237,113,184
The movie that brought Travolta everlasting fame, Saturday Night Fever is a gritty wish-fulfilment tale that’s become overshadowed by its soundtrack, but forty years on it still has a power and a coarse energy that keeps it feeling fresh and not just a time capsule look at an era now long gone. Travolta is so convincing as Tony Manero that you can’t imagine anyone else playing the role, and though it spawned a million and one parodies – the best being in Airplane! (1980) – that white suit and Travolta’s defiant strutting, both on and off the dancefloor, are still as iconic as ever.
5 – Face/Off (1997) – $245,676,146
John Woo given (nearly) free rein + John Travolta + Nicolas Cage + more mayhem and carnage than you can shake a church full of doves at = an even barmier and over the top movie than Broken Arrow. Face/Off is one of the maddest, strangest, but totally enjoyable action movies of the Nineties. Woo directs as if he doesn’t care how looney it all is, and Travolta – along with his future DtV compatriot Cage – goes along for the ride, hamming it up as much as he can and having a whale of a time. He’s out there, and he wants you to come with him… and how can you refuse?
4 – Wild Hogs (2007) – $253,625,427
At this point, you might be saying to yourself, “Wow! Really? Wild Hogs? Over two hundred and fifty million? How did that happen?” And on the surface, you’d be right, but dig a little deeper and the movie has some (well) hidden depths, as well as a quartet of hugely enjoyable performances, including Travolta as the de facto leader of the Hogs. It’s an undemanding movie, but Travolta is easy-going (even when playing uptight) and immensely likeable, and when his character gets easily flustered, it’s a sight to see – purely because it’s a trait he rarely gets to display elsewhere. One to file under Don’t Knock It If You Haven’t Seen It, and a lot funnier and warm-hearted than you’d expect.
3 – Look Who’s Talking (1989) – $296,999,813
The first of three – Travolta appears in all of them – Look Who’s Talking was a surprise box office success back in 1989, but though the basic premise is clever: baby expresses his thoughts and feelings as he would if he were an adult (and with Bruce Willis’s voice), the movie is genuinely funny, and has a lot of heart, making it easy to like. Travolta plays a more charming version of Tony Manero, and there’s a definite chemistry with Kirstie Alley that allows Travolta to show he can do a straightforward romantic role as well. Now if only they’d left things well alone and not made two more movies…
2 – Bolt (2008) – $309,979,994
To date, Bolt is Travolta’s second and last animated movie, after Our Friend, Martin (1999). Unfairly overlooked when it was first released, there’s a lot to be said for the first movie that John Lasseter oversaw upon jumping ship from Pixar to Disney, not the least of which is the unexpectedly inspired choice of Travolta as the title pooch. He’s clearly having fun with the role, and that comes across in his performance; which begs the question, why hasn’t he made more animated movies? Whatever the reason, Travolta is definitely one of the main reasons for the movie’s success, and his performance more than justifies the producers’ making him first choice for the role all along.
1 – Grease (1978) – $394,955,690
As the Kurgan (Clancy Brown) put it in Highlander (1986), “There can be only one”, and sure enough it had to be Grease. Even if you’re not a fan of musicals, you have to admire the sheer exuberance and exhilaration of the dance sequences that make up most of Grease‘s allure, along with its way-too-catchy songs and endlessly quotable dialogue (“Let’s hear it for the toilet paper!”). As the belligerent/charming Danny Zuko, Travolta makes a virtue (of sorts) of thrusting his hips as often as he can in Olivia Newton-John’s direction, as well as looking out of his depth, and all with a virile swagger that recalls any number of teenagers from those Sixties beach movies. A great performance in a classic musical, pure and simple.