'Trading Paint': Film Review

Saban Films
Stalls out long before the finish line.
3/22/2019

John Travolta plays a legendary dirt track racer who comes into conflict with his son in Karzan Kader's Southern-set drama.

Some show-business careers are hard to fathom. John Travolta's, for instance. The actor burst into superstardom in the 1970s with his dynamic, sexy turns in Saturday Night Fever and Grease. He proved himself a truly talented thespian with his performances in such movies as Blow Out. After a lengthy downturn, he made a brilliant comeback in Pulp Fiction. He's aged well, and even recently garnered praise for his new, shaved head look. So why in hell is he still reduced to such direct-to-VOD mediocrities as Trading Paint?

In Karzan Kader's drama, Travolta plays Sam Munroe (even the name seems stereotypical), a legendary former dirt track racer in the deep South who wants to pass his torch down to his driver son Cam (played by Toby Sebastian of Game of Thrones, raising the question of why so many Southerners are played by Brits). Both men are still grieving over the death of Cam's mother, killed in a car accident for which Sam feels responsible. When Cam decides to stop driving for his father during a losing streak and goes to work for Sam's bitter rival Linsky (Michael Madsen, sounding like he gargles with razor blades), it causes a bitter rift between father and son. So much so, in fact, that Sam decides to begin driving again and compete with his son. Along the way, Sam takes comfort from his burgeoning romantic relationship with a newcomer to the area, Becca (singer Shania Twain, making a charming feature acting debut).

There's plenty of material here for a reasonably engrossing drama. Somehow, screenwriters Craig R. Welch and Greg Gerani fail to come up with anything remotely interesting. Character motivations and nearly everything else are left unexplored, such as, for instance, what caused Sam and Linsky to become bitter rivals (save for the fact that the latter is played by go-to bad guy Madsen). The film limps from one listless, enervating scene to another, feeling much, much longer than its 89 minutes (eight of which are credits).

And don't get me started about the cheesy dialogue, which includes such declarations as "Racing is in our blood!" During the sequences at the track, we hear from a pair of announcers commenting on the drivers' personal conflicts by breathlessly telling us we're watching "a true Southern soap opera." They make the commentators in the Pitch Perfect movies seem souls of gravitas by comparison.

Travolta, employing the necessary Southern drawl, delivers a perfectly respectable, subtle performance. But he has so little to work with that you can feel him struggling to make something out of nothing. Probably the best turn comes from veteran character actor Kevin Dunn, playing Sam's loyal mechanic Stumpy (yes, Stumpy), who gets to deliver the sort of character-defining monologue denied to all the leading performers. Director Kader proves unable to generate any excitement even with the racing sequences, so perfunctorily filmed they're almost an anti-commercial for the sport.

The sort of cornpone melodrama that would have gone over well in '70s-era Southern drive-ins as the bottom half of a double feature (and would probably have starred Jan-Michael Vincent as the son), Trading Paint seems to have no reason for being. Someone needs to resurrect Travolta's career again, stat. Quentin Tarantino, the ball's in your court.

Production companies: Ambi Pictures, Elipsis Capital, Premiere Pictures, Sculptor Media
Distributor: Saban Films
Cast: John Travolta, Toby Sebastian, Shania Twain, Michael Madsen, Rosabell Laurenti Sellers, Kevin Dunn
Director: Karzan Kader
Screenwriters: Craig R. Welch, Greg Gerani
Producers: Alberto Burgueno, Alexandra Klim, Andrea Ievolino, Silvio Muraglia
Executive producers: Anson Downes, Linda Favila, Jason Garrett, Oscar Generale, Eric Gold, Warren Goz, James Masciello, David Rogers, Jonathan Saba, Mikael Wiran
Director of photography: Jose David Montero
Production designer: Joe Lemmon
Editors: Alex Freitas, Julia Juaniz
Composer: Victor Reyes
Costume designer: Tamika Jackson
Casting: Lisa London, Bruno Rosato, Catherine Stroud

Rated R, 89 minutes