With a streamlined screenplay and maybe a different director, Life on the Line could've been a solid little true life, blue collar drama, bolstered by a sturdy if straightforward John Travolta performance. As it is, its best moments are more fleeting and broken up by unnecessary side stories and additional characters. These additional details may be drawn from whatever semblance of a true story the movie is based on (although a cursory internet search suggests the characters are completely fictional), but they do little more than clutter up a fairly straightforward story about professionals who go out and risk their lives (and a certain amount about what those lives entail) in order to do their jobs.
Travolta plays Beau Ginner, a man who works as a lineman for a power company in Texas. Years ago, his carelessness on the job cost his brother his life in a lightning strike, and worse, his brother's wife's as well, who is killed en route to the hospital in a car wreck. Now, he's got the respect of his men who know him to be a careful guy who would rather get a job done right than get a job done ahead of schedule. He is the guardian of his brother's daughter, Bailey (Kate Bosworth), a waitress at a local diner still dithering on filling out college applications. Although he naturally cares about his niece, her safety is even more important under the weight of responsibility he feels for her parents' deaths. This fuels his distaste for her boyfriend Duncan (Devon Sawa) -- who's just landed a job on Beau's team. In Beau's eyes, Duncan is a bad egg, but in truth, he's a good man whose reputation is tainted by his ex-con brother Ron (Matt Bellefleur) and their drunk and depressed mother (Sharon Stone).
Within these story parameters, the movie is often surprisingly effective. Travolta, whose career has often suffered from bad choices, has a certain warmth and weather to him that fits the character of Beau. He's very believable as an old-timer who would rather shake hands with a belligerent biker than get into a bar fight, and infuses both his heartbreak over the things in his past and the pride he feels in Bailey with weight that befits his boxy frame. Although not all of director David Hackl's choices are on the money, he is mostly wise enough to stand down while Travolta puts the work in, rather than trying to underline these beats with too much additional sentiment. Sawa and Bosworth are also strong here, turning in unsurprising but reliable performances. They have good chemistry with each other, effectively conveying the way in which their combined problems seem less worrisome when they're together, which is enough of a spark to help power the film forward.
Too bad writers Primo Brown, Marvin Peart, and Peter I. Horton don't believe that's enough. To this relatively simple three-sided dynamic, they add in an entire thread about Ron being infatuated with Bailey. Believing Bailey and Duncan to be on a break, if not broken up, he starts hanging around her house, pushing himself on her at every moment. To her rescue, but the movie's detriment, is Beau and Bailey's new next door neighbor, Carline (Julie Benz), who swoops in like any good wingwoman to get Ron to buzz off. Soon, they're bonding over insecurities, including Bailey's uncertainty about going to college, and Carline's suspicion that things aren't quite all right with her husband, Eugene (Ryan Robbins), a former war vet who now works for the same line company as Beau. These threads all exist for no particular reason but to help contrive a race-against-time climax that is entirely at odds with the character work that makes the movie work. There's also a useless and somewhat annoying framing device, in which the story is relayed through an unidentified documentary or news crew talking to Duncan, which adds nothing but running time.
After the film concludes, text on the screen explains that Life on the Line was an idea by a real lineman, and that the film is intended as an explanation of the hardships they face and the risk they undertake in order to do their jobs. It's a fine message, which why it's a shame that the finished film is so interested in telling stories -- even that of a traumatized veteran -- that really have nothing to do with the job in question.
I'll be honest, most of the time when I select DVDTalk screeners, I don't go any deeper than what is presented in the site's database: the cover art, the cast, and the director. So I took Life on the Line based on the cover image Lionsgate has created for it, which is Travolta standing next to a flaming train, sparks flying, fire bursting into the air -- I thought it was an action movie. Whoops! The back cover does a much better job, through pictures alone, of clarifying that this a
is a blue-collar drama, not a thriller (although I think it's probably an accident that the sparks randomly added to the back are covering some of the pictures from the film -- perhaps some layers got mixed up in Photoshop). The one-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Viva Elite, inside a glossy slip with an embossed title, and there is a leaflet inside the case offering an UltraViolet Digital HD copy.
The Video and Audio
Life on the Line gets a generally pleasing 2.39:1 1080p AVC and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 presentation. The real winner here is fine detail -- in a nice bridge between the ultra-clean look of digital productions and the less sterile presentation of film, Life on the Line's cinematography has the right look that offers stunning detail without screaming "low budget." Colors are particularly striking throughout (although they are sometimes intentionally muted or allowed to hit full saturation, depending on the mood of the scene). Storm sequences, close calls, and unexpected bits of action provide numerous opportunities for the surrounds to show off their immersivenese. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and English and Spanish subtitles are also included.
A couple of perfunctory extras are on tap. "Behind-the-Scenes" (16:49) is a run-of-the-mill behind-the-scenes piece with interviews from the cast and crew, interspersed with footage from the movie and a hefty helping of B-roll, and there's also a music video (3:55) for the exceptionally late-'90s credits song "Life on the Line", by Fiona Culley and Darius Rucker.
Trailers for Deepwater Horizon, Patriots Day (back-to-back!), Imperium, Heist, and I Am Wrath play before the main menu, and are re-viewable under the special features menu as "Also From Lionsgate." An original theatrical trailer for Life on the Line is also included.
Although the movie is at times comically overwrought (Beau's backstory, especially the repeated notion of it being his birthday, becomes unintentionally funny as the tragedies stack up), and it contains a number of unnecessary side stories, there is merit in Travolta's performance and the core of what Life on the Line is. Fans of the actor should give it a rental.
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