PLOT: The life of mob boss John Gotti (John Travolta), who battles rival mobs to emerge the boss of bosses, while his son (Spencer Lofranco) finds himself drawn deeper into a life of crime.
REVIEW: GOTTI’s no doubt going to go down in producer-star John Travolta’s career as one of his major flops, and he’s had more than a few. Movies like PERFECT ended his late-seventies, early-eighties leading man phase, but he arguably came back better than ever in the mid-nineties following PULP FICTION. For the next half-decade or so, he was golden. This was his peak, but at the height of his bankability, he made the stunningly ill-conceived BATTLEFIELD EARTH and his career has never recovered. For the last half-decade, he’s been toiling in DTV-VOD potboilers, save for the occasional bit of mainstream success, such as his lauded performance in “American Crime Story: The People vs OJ”.
Clearly, Travolta’s been hungry for a comeback, and for years now he’s devoted his energy to making a John Gotti biopic which would trade on his modest resemblance to the don, in a project I’m sure he hoped would be a PULP FICTION-style comeback. The producers went through a lot of directors, eventually settling on “Entourage’s” Kevin Connolly, but the finished film was slated for a quiet, no-fuss VOD release late last year, before being pulled at the eleventh hour by its producers in favor of a mainstream theatrical release.
Had GOTTI stuck with the VOD release, there’s no way it would be being met with as much vitriol as it is now, for the fact that a lot fewer people would have seen it. It’s schlocky and comes off more like a glorified TV movie than a legit film, but were it not being propped up, more charitable reviewers might have thrown it a bone for the fact that Travolta is actually not bad at all as the so-called “Dapper Don”, while it also has a nice supporting turn by Stacy Keach as Aniello Dellacroce. But, that’s literally all this bargain-basement mob offering has to offer. At its best, it’s dull. At its worst – it’s highly offensive.
For one thing, the Gotti clan is highly romanticized, particularly Gotti’s son, John Jr., played by Spencer Lofranco. This is based on his book, and briefly chronicles his ongoing legal fights, but the movie tries to have it both ways. They never show him engaging in any criminal activity, save for a quick fight (to establish his tough guy bonafides), yet we also see him being “made” and is the defacto head of the family. To watch this movie, you’d think he never broke a law in his life, but the truth is a lot more complicated than this lets on.
By contrast, John Gotti himself is portrayed as a cool-guy mobster, down with protecting his family, but his more murderous side is also downplayed. He’s crime are all portrayed as justified and “cool”, such as a hit scored to Isaac Hayes’s “Theme from SHAFT.” He says “f-this” and “f-that”, and fights with his wife (real-life Travolta spouse Kelly Preston), but he’s basically shown to be a softie version of Tony Soprano minus the moral ambiguity. Every time he goes on trial they cut to stock footage of his wise guy fans, making it clear the filmmakers expect us to root for him – a tough pill to swallow.
Now, understand, I love mob movies. In fact, I’d wager they’re my favorite genre. GOODFELLAS is my all-time favorite film, “The Sopranos” is legit art, and I love old Jimmy Cagney flicks like ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, the outstanding THE ROARING TWENTIES, and even lesser mob movies, like THE ICEMAN. So if anyone would cut GOTTI a break, it was me. Yet, it feels like Kevin Connolly and the rest of his crew watched a bunch of Scorsese movies and “The Sopranos” and tried to do a CliffsNotes homage. Yet, they clearly haven’t grasped the message of those films, with Scorsese never celebrating his gangster anti-heroes (who he always revealed to be murderous, coked-up sociopaths), and “The Sopranos” really going to great lengths to remind audiences of the fact that Tony Soprano, while charismatic, was a bastard through-and-through. GOTTI presents its hero like a ROCKY of the underworld, and it’s a grave misstep.
Even still, I’m probably giving GOTTI more thought than it deserves, because it really is a cheapie B-flick, propped up by some real marketing muscle, although their “critics are trolls” campaign is misguided. Everything about this is bargain basement. It takes place in the seventies and eighties, but minus some shoulder pads and perms you’d never know as the production design is so sparse. Most of the action takes place in what looks to be the constantly redressed basement of an Elks lodge, while we get the occasional period pop tune to remind us, “Hey – it’s the eighties!” Meanwhile, none other than Pitbull is on hand to provide the score, meaning there are scenes set in the eighties, where gangsters party to hits like “Don’t Stop the Party.” It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it’s so stupid it might be charming if the movie didn’t have so many other problems.
I’ll give GOTTI this, it manages something no other film has. It’s simultaneously too short and too long. As my girlfriend mentioned to me while we were watching it, any of the threads present in the first twenty minutes would have been a season-long arc on “The Sopranos”, but it was so dull that had the movie been five minutes longer I don’t know if I could have stuck it out. GOTTI really is a huge black mark on Travolta’s career, and he would have been better served had this just gone the VOD route and he hadn’t drawn so much attention to it. It doesn’t even work in a GEOSTORM “so bad it’s good” way. Put this one “on the shelf” (to borrow mob parlance) where it belongs. The old Armand Assante HBO TV movie is better.