- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2001

LOS ANGELES — John Travolta isnt a journalist, but he probably could write the headlines himself if his new film, "Swordfish," tanks.

The actor has read enough scathing critiques directed his way to give him a working knowledge of the scribe´s trade.

Mr. Travolta still recalls the critical jihad against him when his third major picture, 1978´s "Moment by Moment," failed to measure up to its predecessors, "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease."

"After 'Moment by Moment,´ you would have thought I sunk the Titanic," Mr. Travolta says with the calm, assured mien of a therapist.

"After that movie, no longer did I have a sensitivity to being creamed. You´d only have to be there for the level of 'creamed-ness,´" he says, a smile breaking over his familiar features, giving him an unexpectedly goofy look for a movie star.

Mr. Travolta calmly dissected his curious career trajectory last week during a press tour for "Swordfish," a computer-hacker thriller that opens tomorrow.

"It´s an overreaction to any given project, and it only seems to happen with me," he says days before the first volley of reviews of his new film hits.

It´s how the media treats him, he explains.

"They always have, even in the first draft of my career," he says.

"Swordfish" follows in the bloody wake of last year´s "Battlefield Earth" and "Lucky Numbers," the former a bomb as metaphorically big as any dumped on Pearl Harbor.

The actor doesn´t appear nervous, though.

He enters the room with the loping stride of a man who has just scratched off a winning lottery ticket.

Standing at the top of the Hollywood hierarchy means you can laugh off the occasional dud, even those in which you have a personal stake. "Battlefield Earth" translated a novel by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Mr. Travolta´s religion, Scientology, to the screen.

He says his indifference isn´t an act.

"I can´t hide my feelings. I have a transparency in my eyes," he says. A whiff of a tan frames those piercing, deep-set orbs.

The laughter that bubbles forth during the conversation sounds genuine. If it´s forced, it´s good acting, something the thespian, nominated twice for an Oscar, certainly is capable of summoning.

For "Swordfish," Mr. Travolta assumes the mercurial role of Gabriel Shear, a charismatic spy intent on ending terrorism, even if he has to erase dozens of innocent lives to do so.

"He´s calculating, but he also feels that he´s doing some good for mankind," says Mr. Travolta, who is without his character´s identifiable soul patch. "Gabriel does have this moral code … kill a few, save a lot. Theoretically, it´s hard to argue that.

"I thought for an action picture, the characters were well-delineated," he continues. "It was a cut above your normal excuse to blow up things."

But "blow up things" it does, enough to make those against film violence stampede for the exits. He insists the movie´s characters make the pyrotechnics worth the bother.

"That´s the way 'Face/Off´ and 'Broken Arrow´ and 'Pulp Fiction´ were. You didn´t need the tricks as much as you needed the characters and the story to work," he says. "The icing on the cake is all the fun stuff."

"Battlefield Earth" notwithstanding, Mr. Travolta still wields the kind of clout that can bend a script such as the one for "Swordfish" to his liking.

"The opening 15 pages I thought were perfect. I didn´t change a word," he says, perhaps not realizing how a screenwriter might perceive such comments. Indeed, the first scene crackles, even if director Dominic Sena´s obtuse camera work threatens to short-circuit the tension.

Many doubted that Mr. Travolta ever would wield such clout again after a skein of disastrous choices in the mid-80s, from "Two of a Kind" (1983) to "Perfect" (1985).

Jonathan Krane, a producer who has worked with Mr. Travolta for nearly two decades, says the critics back then couldn´t see the big picture.

"In 1985, they said he´d never work again," says Mr. Krane, who also helped produce "Swordfish," "but the guy had a range. You could tell that.

"With John, he started so high. Everybody judges him by different standards," Mr. Krane says to explain the amplified highs and lows of his colleague´s career.

The actor, whose dance-hall strut in "Saturday Night Fever" fueled the heady disco craze, also isn´t satisfied with revisiting the same role twice, which leaves him open for critiques.

"He wants to play a different character every time. That´s hard," Mr. Krane says.

Mr. Travolta can play virtually any part today, thanks to a menacing turn as Vincent Vega in 1994´s "Pulp Fiction." The film resuscitated his career while broadening the types of roles audiences could expect from him.

"'Pulp Fiction´ introduced all these possibilities to me," he says, comparing his access to villainous roles to that of actors of yore.

"With Cagney and Bogart, you got the good guys, the bad guys and in between. It´s quite nice."

"Swordfish" co-star Hugh Jackman, best known as the hirsute Wolverine in "X-Men," says he became a fan of Mr. Travolta´s at 10.

"I was doing 'Grease´ dance competitions at school," Mr. Jackman recalls. Years later, when he was studying acting in his native Australia, he snuck away to the local cinemas to check out Mr. Travolta´s work in "Pulp Fiction" and, later, in 1995´s "Get Shorty."

"The ultimate aim is to make you forget you´re watching actors, and that´s what John Travolta does for me. That´s the greatest compliment I can pay," Mr. Jackman says. "There´s precious few actors out there who can do that."

He also found Mr. Travolta to be refreshingly unselfish when the director yells "action."

A tense scene early in "Swordfish" has Mr. Jackman´s character trying to hack into a computer system while Shear points a gun to his temple as an incentive.

It´s the kind of moment audiences could expect the veteran actor to stroll away from in triumph. Instead, Mr. Travolta says he made sure the opposite happened.

"I want (Mr. Jackman´s character) to be the cooler guy at this moment because then he´s valuable to my character," Mr. Travolta says.

That´s hardly the ego tale one expects of a Hollywood power broker.

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