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By Jesse Fox Mayshark

Stayin' Alive

Maybe it was the return of disco. Maybe it was Quentin Tarantino. Maybe it was scientology. Whatever, John Travolta has had a couple of major-league years.

After more than a decade as a has-been reduced to making talking baby movies (shudder), the former Warthog has re-entered the ranks of Hollywood's ridiculously remunerated leading men. It's nice to see, really. He was always a better actor than he got credit for, and he has a lot of charisma even without the white leisure suit.

But while he's making more movies and getting paid more to make them, he's not necessarily making good movies. Apart from Pulp Fiction (pardon me while I genuflect), his recent efforts have been mostly fair to middlin'.

Michael (1996), new to video, is a good example. In Nora Ephron's latest transcendental emotefest, Travolta plays the Archangel Michael making his last visit to earth (turns out all angels get a limited number of trips to the material world). He hooks up with some tabloid reporters (Andie MacDowell, who's blandly appealing, and William Hurt, who's just bland), and shows them the secrets of the human heart. Or something. The first half is pretty entertaining, mostly thanks to Travolta's goofy take on the hedonistic Michael. But the second half gets unbearably saccharine. Ephron, whose last big hit was the irritatingly calculated Sleepless in Seattle, doesn't know when to turn off the cliché generator and let the story tell itself.

Phenomenon (1996), Travolta's other recent feel-good movie, is a little more interesting than Michael, even though the two films feel strangely alike (Michael could almost be a sequel to Phenomenon). In this one, Travolta's an average Joe who gets zapped by a big light and develops amazing mental abilities. But when he tries to use them to help people, he encounters fear, suspicion, and resentment. You can see the ending coming a mile away, but Travolta and love interest Kyra Sedgwick give the story enough life to make it a better-than-mediocre Hollywood fable.

One of the better--and least typical--roles of Travolta's earlier career came in Brian DePalma's Blow Out (1981, R). Like most of DePalma's films, it's an homage-cum-ripoff (in this case, lifting from Hitchcock and Antonioni), about a sound engineer who captures a suspicious death on tape. Travolta and Nancy Allen are good as the endangered heroes, and John Lithgow is frighteningly effective as the villain, a psychopath with a penchant for strangulation. If only he'd been in those talking baby movies...

--Jesse Fox Mayshark

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