'Life on the Line': Film Review

Life may be on the line, but it’s in short supply on the screen.

John Travolta plays a working-class hero in a drama that pays tribute to electric company linemen.

Aiming to shine a light on overlooked heroes of the modern age, Life on the Line instead cobbles together a crude action-melodrama. The subject is linemen — as in “Wichita Lineman” — who risk life and limb to keep the American electrical grid working. As far as pop-culture nods to the courageous utility workers go, the feature, which had its world premiere at the Napa Valley Film Festival, doesn’t come close to the impact of the classic Jimmy Webb song. John Travolta’s lead turn might spark distributor interest for the indie feature, but he’s as short-circuited by the clumsy screenplay and direction as everyone else in the cast.

Travolta steps into working-class shoes previously worn on the big screen by Henry Fonda and Edward G. Robinson, who played linemen in 1937’s Slim and 1941’s Manpower, respectively. Like those vintage features, the new film throws romantic intrigue into the mix, and uses violently bad weather to illustrate the dangers of the job, but in this case it’s an exceptionally awkward mix.

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A passion project of producer Chad Dubea, a former utility-service contractor, the Texas-set story revolves around the challenges of a major power-grid upgrade, interweaving stiff pieces of backstory. The drama’s elements of ham-handed romance don’t involve Travolta’s character, Beau, who lives in a state of middle-aged asceticism, devoted only to his job and to Bailey (Kate Bosworth), the orphaned niece he raised.

Beau’s old-school carefulness and pride in his work don’t fly with the front-office suits who, heartlessly, are worried only about deadlines. But any tension inherent in that setup is dissipated by the dialogue: One character after another reiterates the humble Beau’s expertise, reliability and honesty. The message-y screenplay, credited to three writers, is laden with factoids, posing as conversation, about “the fourth-most dangerous job in the U.S.” And for good measure, Beau presents a safety slideshow to his colleagues (and the audience), complete with images of dire injuries that their brethren have endured.

Concerned with both physical and psychological hazards of the job, Life on the Line manufactures a pileup of looming disasters to which director David Hackl lends no cadence. Chief among these is a foreshadowed storm, with onscreen titles ticking away the countdown (“10 Days Till the Storm”). In full-circle, ultra-melodramatic fashion, the approaching deluge recalls the event that claimed the life of Bailey’s father, and forces Beau to overcome his distrust of her boyfriend, Duncan (Devon Sawa).

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As the latter’s booze-addled mother, Sharon Stone sounds the only involving emotional notes in the pic, piercing the story’s agenda in a couple of brief but compelling scenes. She plays the embittered widow of a lineman. The potentially powerful theme of widowhood within this subculture, emotional widowhood included, plays out elsewhere in ways that are clichéd rather than affecting. Case in point: the muddled subplot about a troubled lineman who’s an Iraq vet (Ryan Robbins) and his cheating wife (Julie Benz).

Hackl, a former production designer who directed Saw V and Into the Grizzly Maze, fits the pieces together in a way that’s devoid of momentum. There’s certainly a strong story to be told about linemen as unsung first responders (they don’t yet have that official designation). But this one, with its clunky plot mechanics, unmemorable widescreen visuals and predictably country-flavored score, misses the mark.

Production companies: Elite Film Prods. and Marro Films in association with Voltage Pictures
Cast: John Travolta, Kate Bosworth, Devon Sawa, Julie Benz, Gil Bellows, Sharon Stone, Ryan Robbins
Director: David Hackl
Screenwriters: Primo Brown, Marvin Peart, Peter I. Horton
Producers: Marvin Peart, Phillip Glasser
Executive producers: Chad Dubea, Rosa Morris Peart, Bryant Pike, Shawn Williamson, Jamie Goehring
Director of photography: Brian Pearson
Production designer: Renee Read
Costume designer: Vicky Mulholland
Editor: Jamie Alain
Composer: Jeff Toyne
Casting: Roe Baker

Not rated, 97 minutes