J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Life on the Line: Travolta Works the Fourth Most Dangerous Job

It has been forty-eight years since pop culture addressed the trials and travails of electrical linemen. Frankly, we should have waited longer. Glen Campbell’s classic pop song “Wichita Lineman” has not lost any of its potency, whereas this film is a dud. It is true, linesmen do incredibly dangerous work just to keep our Xboxes humming along. Just in case we forget, viewers will be constantly reminded of that grim fact by the cornball dialogue of David Hackl’s Life on the Line (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Beau Ginner used to be a one of the few slackers working on the lines, but he got serious when his brother was killed by lightning fixing his slap-dash job. But wait, it gets worse—his sister-in-law also dies in a car crash while rushing to the hospital that fateful rainy night. Ginner suddenly gets serious when forced to raise his niece Bailey on his own.

When Hackl Flashes forward ten or fifteen minutes, Ginner is now a foreman, who is determined to send the forgiving Bailey to college, but she has her own reasons for staying in town. They involve her dopey boyfriend Duncan, whom Ginner can’t stand, even though he just hired on as a lineman on Ginner’s crew. They will have their work cut out for them. The grid is wearing thin and the utility execs are constantly cutting corners, while a freak storm is brewing on the horizon, as we can tell from the handy countdown clock Hackl provides.

Nobody wants to belittle the dedication of our nation’s linemen. After all, it is the “fourth most dangerous job in the United States,” as Ginner tells us whenever he slips in encyclopedia mode. However, this would have made a better History Channel reality TV show than a narrative feature. Words like manipulative do not sufficiently describe its melodramatic excesses. However, the maudlin denouement collapses into one long fundraising video for the Fallen Linemen non-profit. It is surely a worthy cause, but lets just say watching the cast visit the Linemen memorial does not resonate as deeply as the ending of Schindler’s List.

To be fair, John Travolta can still connect with his blue-collar roots. As Ginner, he provides the film a dignified anchor. In contrast, porcelain ice queen Kate Bosworth looks as out of place as Bailey Ginner as Queen Elizabeth at a monster truck rally. Poor Gil Bellows just looks ridiculous playing Ginner’s best bud in what looks like a Unabomber beard. Devon Sawa (cast as Duncan) looks bizarrely similar to two other actors, which is problematic, considering one is a suicidal Iraq veteran lineman and the other is a psycho stalking his wife.

As soon as the opening credits roll, we are waiting the film to play “Wichita Lineman,” because how could it not? Instead, it serves up an embarrassingly cheesy duet, featuring Darius Rucker (formerly of Hootie & the Blowfish) and British country singer Fiona Culley that sounds like a deliberate attempt to discredit the power ballad.  Maybe we would remember the film more fondly if it had not assaulted us with such bombastic treacle.

Sadly, Life on the Line represents a step backwards for Hackl and the meathead merits of his previous film, Into the Grizzly Maze (starring Billy Bob Thornton as a creepy Zenned-out bear-hunter). It is all so earnestly well-intentioned, which makes it so uncomfortably awkward to watch. Sorry linemen, there is just no way to recommend Life on the Line when it opens today (11/18) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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