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Travolta wrote the book on comebacks

(ran GB edition)

John Travolta's career could best be described as manic-depressive.

The oh-so-hot actor has staged a comeback unrivaled in recent film history. Even during that bleak period in his career, around the mid '80s, the charismatic Travolta could still command the screen, even if the movie stunk.

After swaggering and dancing himself to movie star icon as that disco stud Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, the former sweathog of TV's Welcome Back Kotter could do no wrong. He rode broncos and romanced Debra Winger in Urban Cowboy and turned that Australian sweetie Olivia Newton-John into a vamp (Grease). His mug, as well as most other body parts, was plastered on magazine covers. Critics and audiences went gaga.

Then all the fame and acclaim stopped. His movies, once assured of making millions, started to tank. He followed up Saturday Night Fever with the lame and sweaty Staying Alive; he reunited with Olivia for a dreadful comedy (Two of a Kind), and demonstrated some pelvic tilts all for naught with Jamie Lee Curtis in Perfect. The biggest miscalculation was the romantic travesty with Lily Tomlin, Moment By Moment. Even a sweaty hot tub scene couldn't save that one.

Things only got worse from there. There were those Look Who's Talking movies, all of which highlighted a gimmick (giving a voice to a baby's (or babies' or poodle's) innermost thought), not Travolta. The once Golden Boy was tarnished, and it looked like a lifelong sentence in mediocrity hell. Travolta kept plugging away, and as each movie was released it was ferociously slammed by critics and audiences alike.

The snickers turned to a buzz with a strange little movie called Pulp Fiction. The old Travolta, in a much different form, was back with a vengeance. As a hit man fond of discussions relating to Big Macs, spirituality and heroin, Travolta scored a knockout and an Oscar nomination.

From that career-reviving role, Travolta has never looked back, cranking out hit after hit. His performance in Get Shorty recalled the magnetic charisma he so effortlessly displayed in Saturday Night Fever. He made us cry (Phenomenon), he made us boo (Broken Arrow) and he made us laugh (Michael). He was back and it felt like the old Travolta had never gone away.

Many in Hollywood search desperately for that elusive star quality that Travolta possesses. No other actor today has such a commanding, in-your-face presence. Not Gibson, not De Niro, not even Pacino. When Travolta's onscreen, you evaporate into his cinematic world.

The comeback of Travolta continues today with the release

of Mad City. Coinciding with the video release of John Woo's masterwork Face/Off this month, Paramount Home Video is rereleasing Urban Cowboy and promoting four of Travolta's earlier titles, The Experts, Grease, Saturday Night Fever and Staying Alive.

To really appreciate one of this generation's best actors, flash back to these videos by that Comeback King:

DEVIL'S RAIN: In his first film, Travolta tackles satanic worshippers who melt like Gumby at a camp cookout. Messy, howlingly bad. But seeing Ernie Borgnine sporting goat horns is stirring, in an odd way. (1975) 1 star

CARRIE: Brian DePalma creeper with John as the bad guy who contributes in pushing the telekinetic teen Carrie over the edge at her prom. It's a fill-in-the-blanks type role; the movie really belongs to Sissy Spacek as the abused daughter of the spiritually twisted Piper Laurie. A horror classic. (1976) 4 stars

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER: He boogies, he prances, he struts his stuff, but disco king Tony Manero's life rings as hollow as the generation he's living in the '70s. A film that vividly defines a decade. Travolta is absolutely mesmerizing. He's credited with not only making men wear Angel Flight pants, but also switching from boring white briefs and into black bikinis. (1977) 4 stars

GREASE: As substantial as a hunk of a Bazooka bubble gum, this goofy musical is simply irresistible. Travolta sings, as does Olivia Newton John, in Hollywood's most successful musical of all time. As rambunctious and brainless as a 2-month-old puppy, and just as much a joy to have around on a rainy afternoon. (1978) 3.5 stars

URBAN COWBOY: Another slice of American life a la Saturday Night Fever. Travolta busts mechanical bulls and hearts in director James Bridges' sharp and character-driven flick. It rambles at times, but when it's in the saddle it's magnificent. (1980) 3.5 stars

BLOW OUT: Travolta reunites with DePalma, the master of imitation, with this dark and shocking story involving an assassination and a serial killer. Travolta's a movie sound man who conducts his own investigation into the death of a senator. Shades of Chappaquiddick and Blow-Up. One of DePalma's best and most cynical films. 4 stars

TWO OF A KIND: Angels Beatrice Straight, Charles Durning and Scatman Crothers play Cupid. Their targets: John and Olivia. Travolta's worst performance. Harmful to anyone who watches. Oughta be a ban on any movie starring Durning as an angel. (1983) BOMB

PERFECT: Hardly. Based on a Rolling Stone article, John goes to an aerobics class to get to the root of the evilness of health clubs! Oh, those rotten fitness trainers. A movie that is not only flat but utterly useless. It's so '80s. (1985) 1 star

The LOOK WHO'S TALKING Opus: Yes, No. 1 (1989) was kind of cute, but the vapid Too (1990) and the film furball Now (1993) _ with the family mutts talking _ makes a Bronson Pinchot sitcom seem like a comedic inspiration. Travolta's charm is evident, but it's kept under tight control by the bland scripts. Grades: Talking (2.5 stars), Too (BOMB), Now (BOMB).

PULP FICTION: Bold, cutting-edge Quentin Tarantino film is oft-copied, never duplicated. One of the most influential, and therefore loved and reviled, films of the '90s. Seamlessly made. Best scenes involve Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as hit men who engage in a bloody and profane form of My Dinner With Andre chatter. (1994) 4 stars

GET SHORTY: Translating Elmore Leonard's novels to the screen isn't always successful. This time everything clicks, due mainly to Travolta's brash, confident performance as a loan shark and film fan who goes to L.A. to force two Hollywood types to pay up. Filled with irony, cleverness and little digs at the backstabbing movie world. (1995) 3.5 stars

BROKEN ARROW: Not one of John Woo's best (see Face/Off), but enjoyable and suspenseful nevertheless. Great over-the-top acting by Travolta as the heavy whose elaborate scheme to snatch some nuclear weapons goes awry thanks to a spunky Christian Slater. (1995) 3 stars

MICHAEL: A stinker impersonating a box-office hit. Travolta is a gassy, beer-guzzlin' angel. A movie that suffers from mono. Nora Ephron shows no energy behind the camera. Touched by an Angel is better, and that's not saying a heck of a lot. (1996) 1 star