John Travolta used to be an A-list actor with an ongoing string of hits, but he hasn’t headlined a major Hollywood production since 2010 action film From Paris with Love barely broke even at the domestic box office. Ever since, Travolta has received steady work from lower-profile outings that typically receive limited, if any, theatrical release before debuting on video-on-demand. Already this year, the Oscar-nominated star of classics like Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction has appeared in action thriller I Am Wrath and Western In a Valley of Violence, alongside Ethan Hawke. Now, he leads his third 2016 release with Life on the Line.
The film centers on a team of linemen, the workers responsible for repairing power lines and maintaining the electrical grid. Travolta stars as Beau, the grizzled veteran of the group and uncle to orphaned niece Bailey (Kate Bosworth), who finds herself at a romantic crossroads with former flame Duncan (Devon Sawa) who has just joined Beau’s crew. Anyone who has ever seen Michael Bay’s 1998 blockbuster Armageddon can see the writing on the wall right from the start. While that admittedly overblown release offers sci-fi spectacle, Life on the Line counters with plodding suburban drama that has only circumstantial ties to the real drama driving the film.
With a faux-documentary opening, Life on the Line establishes that some tragedy befell the linemen and largely leaves the task of keeping track of this impending doom up to title cards tracking the number of days until the terrible storm hits. Until it does, viewers are subjected to a whole lot of melodrama, much of which centers on either Bailey and Duncan’s tedious love story or a beleaguered housewife (Julie Benz) who just moved in across the street with her family. Intermittently, flashbacks interrupt to point out just how far these characters have come from uninteresting stereotypes to, um, older uninteresting stereotypes.
Director David Hackl – whose most notable credit to date is Saw V (one of the weakest entries in that franchise) – has little to work with here but also fails to inject any compelling reason for viewers to become invested in Life on the Line. It certainly doesn’t help that the performances range from unnervingly over-the-top (Sharon Stone, who’s in this too for some reason) to lethargic (Bosworth, Sawa).
Benz does her very best with the underwhelming role she’s saddled with here, carrying many of the film’s most credible dramatic moments singlehandedly. Alas, poor Travolta is truly slumming it. He may commit to his character’s biker beard and ridiculous accent with the gusto of a former Hollywood leading man, but he cannot muster the wherewithal to elevate Life on the Lion into anything more than the forgettable TV movie it is.
Immediately after the film ends, Life on the Line directly addresses the staggering number of lives lost by linemen every year. By that rationale then, the film’s objective is to shed some narrative light on the danger these men put themselves in on a regular basis. However, it never shows any apparent interest in delving into the details of their work, instead remaining concerned with the soap opera personal lives of its main characters. Ostensibly based on real events, Life on the Line uses this claim as a crutch to coerce audiences into caring about its characters and, even so, emerges wholly unsuccessful on pretty much every level.
Earlier this year, Travolta received a fair amount of praise for his role as Robert Shapiro in the award-winning drama series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, for which he served as executive producer. If Life on the Line is indicative of the kind of films the star has in his queue these days, then perhaps a more extensive return to television is in order. After all, Travolta got his start as lunkhead Vinnie Barbarino on 1970s sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. Perhaps this is where his best chances for a comeback lie, or maybe his long-simmering John Gotti biopic – which finally began filming this summer –will finally put him back on top.
For now, even Travolta fans are better off steering clear of Life on the Line. The film itself may not be as dangerous as the vocation it purports to capture, but if one is absolutely determined to watch the actor slip into the shoes of a devoted worker in a perilous position, 2004 firefighter drama Ladder 49 – which sees Travolta play a similar role to far greater effect – is a far better way to spend your time.
A listless cast and a crushingly flat script fail to illuminate the lives of high-wire electrical workers in Life on the Line, which instead resorts to tired story beats and a false sense of self-righteousness.