John Travolta began his latest “comeback” with TV’s “American Crime Story,” playing the canny, dapper, eventually out-of-the-loop defense attorney Robert Shapiro in the O.J. Simpson trial. He was too tall for the part, but he brought pride, vanity and vulnerability to Shapiro and won kudos for doing it.
The best one can say for his newest attempt at returning to relevance, “Gotti,” which staggered onto the big screen this month after months of delays, distributors chickening out, etc., is that he should have stuck to TV. The script isn’t great, the production values New York seamy and there are a couple of supporting players who act well enough to belong here. But Travolta delivers what there is to deliver. The tone, direction and crack-addict editing all let him down.
Seriously, if you didn’t live through this “Teflon Don” era in New York crime and crime headlines, keeping track of the flaccid, choppy and anecdotal flow of the story is nigh on impossible.
You might remember “The Chin,” and “The Bull” and “Gaspipe” and all the Gambinos, Rosellis, Bilottis, DiCiccos, Ruggieros, Castellanos, Cassos and Boriellos involved in one of the noisiest and bloodiests eras in “La Cosa Nostra” history. But chances are, you don’t, no matter how many headlines you read or how many vowels are in your last name.
Kevin Connolly, who finished “Entourage” with the thought, “I want to direct,” finds this feature way beyond his grasp, creating a muddled movie that cannot find the balance between lionizing Gotti as a “Robin Hood,” a man of honor and fierce family devotion, recognizing that whatever New Yorkers chose to see in him, and the brutally simple fact that he was a murderous, overdressed psychopath, a well-dressed mug and a thug.
The first mistake is right before the opening credits, having Travolta, in character and defiant, address the camera directly — “This life ends one of two ways, dead or in prison. I did both!”
The second mistake is those credits, a montage of the real John Gotti’s many headlines, court appearances and smiling TV “perp walks” during his years running the Gambino Crime Family, and facing the justice system for doing it. Travolta looks a bit like him, but this cheapskate blunder takes you right out of the movie.
It’s a tale told in a disorganized, illogical narrated flashback, where the aged inmate Gotti tries one last time to impart “the life,” its code and “manhood” to his son (Spencer Rocco Lofranco, not really living up to his “big break).
John Jr. is thinking of copping a plea. So the dying Don tells him how he became a “made man,”about men he killed, women he threatened. He became “an earner,” the highest praise for the “soldiers” of the pyramid scheme that is mob management. He figured things out.
“Never do anyone a small injury,” he counsels. Don’t trust anything you hear from “New York’s Finest.” The cops? They “serve two masters,” and sometimes, that second master is a rival mob. And lastly, “I don’t trust any man who never did time.”
Stacy Keach deftly plays Gambino family underboss Neil Dellacroce, the mobster who knew his place, let the family pass to weaker, less deserving leadership than him and didn’t create a fuss.
“The boss is the boss is the boss,” he says. “That’s La Cosa Nostra (“Our Thing”).”
Gotti wasn’t hearing it. In the tradition of a thousand mob movies before this one, younger John angles his way to power, and when the closing circle of prosecution and exposure forces his hand, he takes action — bloodily and ruthlessly.
Connolly and the screenwriters get lost in red-letter dates, this “hit,” that “meeting,” and the Great Ceremonies (a wedding, a “made man” takes his oath) of “the life.”
And they wallow in the coarse, crude and ugly vernacular of these creeps, the murderous threats that pepper “loving” conversations with the wife (Kelly Preston, Mrs. Travolta), the endless F-bombs, the colorful “Lemme AX you this” and “I made youse a tuna sandwich for the road!”
The man loved his wife, loved his kids, loved to gamble and never forgot an offense. He was “Twenty-four hours, seven days a week STREET,” and proud of it. Worth celebrating? Meh.
It’s a movie of impressionist sketches of Gotti, always dressed in Travolta’s permanent scowl. That’s how this vexing picture works best, as little impressions here and there, the fixed image (from police surveillance footage, immortalized in scores of movies and “The Sopranos”) of a bunch of paunchy, homely middle-aged tough guys, standing around some dumpy storefront, restaurant or “social club” entrance, smoking and making veiled threats, the endless back-stabbing, the liberal application of angry Italian, like it’s a code nobody else knows.
“Gotti” doesn’t really have a point, but there is the suggestion that if he was lionized locally, it wasn’t for the occasional “lemme take care of that” favors — a boxing gym’s rent “fixed” here, neighborhood fireworks sponsored in defiance of police there. The NYPD and local prosecutors, a lot of Italians among them as well (including Rudolph William Louis Giuliani) were in their post-“Serpico” funk, infamous for corruption, doing the mob’s bidding and not worthy of unearned respect. No wonder people mobbed Gotti’s trials and tried to riot and free him when he was finally convicted. He came off as “a stand-up guy,” by comparison.
It’s a bad movie, but it has hints of the simplest failing of a lot of movies made by folks who come from long-form TV. It’s episodic to a fault, with no episodes fleshed out and developed, characters played by actors at least as interesting as Chris Mulkey (as underboss Frank DeCicco) and not the generic goombahs rounded up here.
If they’d sold this to cable — and this film sets the World Record for credited producers, at least ONE of whom should know somebody in TV and made the suggestion — it might have worked, another “American Crime Story,” with a lot fewer F-bombs.
It’s just a mess as is, and the only thing we can be sure it will accomplish is killing off MoviePass, a foolish heavy investor in it, and giving Kevin Connolly’s directing career the old Italian Rope Trick. As in, “Fuggedaboutit.”
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and pervasive language
Cast: John Travolta, Kelly Preston, Stacy Keach, Spencer Rocco Lofranco
Running time: 1:44