Synopsis – The story of crime boss John Gotti and his son.
My Take – As a kid growing up in the 90s, I have always had a certain likeness towards John Travolta, even when he ended up starring in films which left you with nothing to talk about. However, unlike actors of his generation, I do agree that he has never been the star who could elevate a mediocre film, in the sense when he chooses to star in a bad film, you know you are in for a terrible time. Here starring as the notoriously famous NYC mob boss John Gotti, who I honestly knew very little about before this film, Travolta has found himself once again on the bad side of the critical reception in probably one of the most infamous films of 2018. Based on the 2015 self-published memoir Shadow of My Father, written by Gotti’s son, John A. Gotti, this film which was supposed to release on VOD last December, after being in development hell for years, took four directors, 44 producers and eight years to make, but by handing over the reins to actor Kevin Connolly turned novice director, and two novice screenwriters resulted in a film that’s just unbearable.
Bombing commercially, the film sits at a slick 0 % on Rotten Tomatoes to which it’s marketing team responded by insulting critics and talking down to its audience, while personally I didn’t find the film as bad as it was advertised, I do think it has been produced in the most substandard way possible. Made as a pure Oscar bait, with a director who realty wanted his film to be something like Goodfellas, and a charming aging leading star who should have exercised more control of the film, particularly in the editing department, this one is just kind of sad to watch.
Spanning over three decades, the story follows John Gotti (John Travolta), who while growing up on the streets of New York found his way into the Gambino crime family, and by impressing his mentor Neil Delacroce (Stacy Keach), ascended in the ranks, and led many criminal activities in the New York City boroughs including racketeering, loan sharking, drug trafficking among others. Despite his profession, Gotti was also a devoted family man, to wife Victoria (Kelly Preston), son John Jr. (Spencer Lofranco) and especially son Frankie (Nico Bustamante), a straight-A student killed in a collision between his minibike and a passing car in 1980.
However growing tired of the way things were running, Gotti took over the Gambino head Paul Castellano (Donald John Volpenhein), by having him gunned during the Christmas season of 1985. While magazine profiles followed, as did such sobriquets as the Dapper Don for his attire and the Teflon Don for the three acquittals he obtained through witness intimidation, his life which mostly consists of non-stop pressure from the FBI and police, and the fear of betrayal by wiretapped colleagues or anyone willing to cut a deal with prosecutors, yet nothing seemed worse than breaking his vow to wife by allowing John Jr. took his place as his father’s Capo.
The film, directed by former Entourage actor Kevin Connolly, with a script by Lem Dobbs and Leo Rossi, fails at telling a coherent, compelling, or worthwhile story. As distinct from a good-bad film like The Room or The Snowman that at least has enough verve and personality to be memorable in its awfulness. This film, meanwhile, is just bewildering mob-film pastiche, kicking off with Gotti becoming a made man in the Gambino family in 1973 and quickly lapsing into a chronologically jumbled procession of prisons, courtrooms, wood-paneled hideouts, awkward parties, weddings, funerals, and seedy back alleys. To the put it simply, the direction is quite bad, as there is no sense to time and how fast the events of John Gotti’s life are moving. The film feels as if multiple scenes were filmed with occurring simultaneously, yet they were just cut-and-pasted together. This is the first film for director Kevin Connolly, which shows.
Even director Connolly’s helpful title cards, and flashes of music and fashion never give us a general sense of time and place, thereby offloading the suspense and vastly reducing the tension. Here in the vastly inferior real world, director Connolly’s technique generally pulls up just short of inept, which only sharpens the contrast of the inept parts. His courtroom scenes are bizarrely broad sub–Law & Order mini melodramas that play like 30 Rock parodies of themselves, with shock reveals of confidential informants. It also fails at making the case for its central thesis: John Gotti was the greatest and most awesome mob boss who ever lived. When the film isn’t ripping off other, better crime films, it has virtually no identity of its own, and what it finds in Travolta’s preening turn is hardly enough to justify much of anything about it, particularly when it gets to its unpleasant thesis, the one about Gotti as a misunderstood cult hero and victim of government harassment. The film keeps telling us Gotti is the coolest, greatest gangster who ever lived, but all we see is a guy who keeps getting betrayed, is always on trial, and whose eventual incarceration and death helped snuff out the New York mob’s final period of dominance.
Real-life footage of riots over Gotti’s conviction are aligned with Gotti narrating (seemingly from beyond the grave) about the relative simplicity of the olden days of crime, back when there were rules and life was simpler. If you find yourself still wondering exactly which olden days the film is driving at, that point is made best by a New Yorker yelling in archival footage about how the streets were safer under Gotti than when “the primates are taking over.” Gotti‘s only real purpose is to fetish a different, more socially acceptable form of gang banger, and for all of its fundamental flaws, that may be the most glaring one of them all.
Worst of all, when the film isn’t simply boring, it becomes unintentionally hilarious in its occasionally inept production. For a period-set feature, several of the music cues are a notable distraction, especially the moment in which a 1983 block party is set to Pitbull’s “Don’t Stop the Party.” The film introduces characters with a quick line of text that shows their name. That’s about as much character development as you will get here. There’s so many ancillary characters that come into the picture that, in combination with the lack of personal development, it’s impossible to distinguish one person from another. The film then treats each character like you’ve spent a lifetime with them, referring to them in rapid succession without much context. It’s hard to say for certain what defines a truly great biopic, but it’s significantly easier to observe that this film is far from being one among them.
If it’s the insight that a thoughtful, well-made feature based on actual people can offer about those people and the times which shaped them, the film offers little to none. If it’s a richer sense of context about the era and place in which their notable works took place, this cheap-seeming crime feature actively struggles to maintain that throughout. If it’s convincing makeup and hairpieces, even, then those too are in short supply. The film attempts to lionize the life and times of famed New York mafia don John Gotti, but succeeds only in proving just how miraculous films like The Godfather and Goodfellas really are by offering a blindingly pale imitation.
Performance wise, John Travolta actually did a good job in his role. He played his role seriously, with the exception of some exaggerated facial expressions, he did not overact like he has done in other flops. The film manages to keep us hooked on to screen because Travolta made his presence feel worthy. The scenes in which he’s given the most room to play to the cheap seats are the closest the film comes to something truly engaging. Kelly Preston (Travolta‘s wife in real life), Spencer Rocco Lofranco, Stacy Keach, Pruitt Taylor Vince, William DeMeo and Chris Mulkey hold their own in supporting roles. On the whole, ‘Gotti’ is a confusing, bland, and underdeveloped mob drama which even Travolta‘s performance cannot save.
Directed – Kevin Connolly
Rated – R
Run Time – 112 minutes