By Ira Robbins
Updated January 17, 1997 at 05:00 AM EST
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The title of PHENOMENON (1996, Touchstone, PG, priced for rental) refers to the supernatural gift acquired by auto mechanic George Malley (John Travolta), a nice guy living a pacific life in a small Northern California town. But the stunning powers of learning, invention, and telekinesis that arrive in a mysterious bolt of light are not the film’s sole paranormal sensation. Playing against long-established type, Travolta rises to the challenge of credibly portraying an ordinary shnook.

The restraint he displays throughout Phenomenon refreshes a career that took off back in Mr. Kotter’s classroom; as the good-looking but slow-witted sweathog Vinnie Barbarino, Travolta ran a close second to Ron (Horshack) Palillo as the actor most likely to play the same character forever. And that’s just what he did upon reaching the movies, starring in a series of box office smashes that exploited his aptitude for portraying proud, image-obsessed ethnic provincials.

With Barbarino as practice, it was no stretch for Travolta to become white-suited disco king Tony Manero in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977, Paramount, R, $14.95), refining sitcom stupidity into a smooth, indelible symbol of the 1970s. Looking at life among Brooklyn’s teen stallions, the movie works over with simple melodrama conflicts concerning girls, racism, and family. But Travolta molds what could have been an equally obvious character into a substantial, tragic figure, no more so than when swaggering on his knees in the face of his ambitious, independent dance partner (Karen Lynn Gorney), who shakes Tony’s devoutly held sense of self and opens him to the possibilities beyond Bay Ridge. Tony struggles to retain his dignity while losing his dominance; likewise, Travolta ennobles Tony even as the film mocks his myopia.

Trussed, batter dipped, and sugarcoated, Vinnie Barbarino morphed into Danny Zuko, a singing and dancing caricature of ’50s delinquency, in GREASE (1978, Paramount, PG, $14.95). Travolta gave his all to this tacky adaptation of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s Broadway musical, which skims and froths the gritty teen drama of Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One into a witless sundae. Trading the handjive and Greased Lightning for the two-step and a mechanical bull, Travolta picked up a Texas drawl and new threads in URBAN COWBOY (1980, Paramount, PG, for rental only). Beneath the sawdust, though, his Bud is one more proud macho bonehead. To his credit, Travolta holds on tight throughout this dated but durable film, handling the rough-riding and tough-love action with equal aplomb. On video, his trademark look of wounded male ego — when bride Sissy (Debra Winger) takes a shine to the evil Wes (Scott Glenn) — is a must for freeze-frame admiration.

Writer-director Brian De Palma (Mission: Impossible) saw another side to Travolta, casting him as Jack Terri, a film soundman who inadvertently becomes an earwitness to a politician’s murder, in BLOW OUT (1981, Warner, R, for rental only). Initially, Jack is an uncomplicated character whose curiosity simply complicates the dirty-tricks cover-up. But as the thriller gains paranoid momentum, De Palma provides Jack’s convenient background details and juices him with jittery desperation, revving a techno-nerd into an unconvincing action hero. Blow Out may have expanded Travolta’s range, but it didn’t change his prospects.

After taking a long wrong turn in his cinematic fortunes (the Saturday Night Fever sequel, Staying Alive; Two of a Kind; The Experts), a more mature Travolta reappeared on the movie-star map with Pulp Fiction (1994) and Get Shorty (1995). But both knowing satires still summoned up iconic memories of the studly dancing fool, sending him back to the old neighborhood to play cool toughs. (Even the angel Travolta plays in the current Michael hits on chicks and busts a terpsichorean move or two.)

That’s why Phenomenon, directed by Jon Turteltaub (While You Were Sleeping), is such a surprise. For the first hour it’s warm, sensitive, and likable, a low-key acceptance of amazing events. Under the fond watch of pals Doc (Robert Duvall) and Nate (Forest Whitaker), George grows into his remarkable powers while trying to romance a skittish single mom (Kyra Sedgwick). But his superhuman gift proves to be a very human burden, the proverbial sack of gold grasped by a drowning man.

With a nod to Spielberg’s view of science and government as the foes of individualism, George soon draws the baleful notice of unsympathetic outsiders; even the locals proceed from bemused wonder to quasi-religious reverence to outright anger at his freakish abilities. Hurtling toward a jarring surprise ending, Phenomenon begins to parallel George’s mental meltdown by grabbing at a dizzying whirl of social and spiritual issues: medical ethics, fear of the unknown, community responsibility and intolerance, martyrdom, sainthood, anti-intellectualism, immortality, the right to die, and more. Ultimately, the tender human drama of Phenomenon succumbs to its didactic philosophical agenda, which occasionally echoes tenets of Scientology, the self-improvement religion to which its star subscribes. George Malley may be humbled by the unexpected exaltation life has dealt him, but the reborn John Travolta — with the self-possessed authority he learned from (or brought to) past roles — still insists on cutting the cards. Phenomenon: B; Saturday Night Fever: B+; Grease: D; Urban Cowboy: B; Blow Out: B-

Blow Out

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  • Brian De Palma