Director: Kevin Connolly
Cast: John Travolta, Kelly Preston, Spencer Rocco Lofranco
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“This life ends one of two ways: death or jail.” That’s our introduction to Gotti (John Travolta), the New York gangster whose ability to avoid being pinned down by the police earned him the nickname “The Teflon Don”. It’s the kind of to-camera monologue that cool gangster films are made of, which is precisely why Gotti begins with one too. This is a movie that wants desperately to be part of the pantheon of genre classics – and that determination is precisely its undoing.
Gotti’s life story is certainly the stuff that cinema is made of: the film takes us from his younger days as a crime dogsbody to him making himself the head of the Gambino crime family, before ending up in prison and then dying of throat cancer. Over the years, that rise-and-fall arc (which includes dalliances with the media, some gambling and extortion and a whole heap of homicides) has attracted such names as Barry Levinson and Al Pacino. But this end product is disappointingly limp, unable to wrestle that epic biography into something entertaining.
That’s no fault of John Travolta. Fresh from The People v. O.J. Simpson, which won him award nominations for his portrayal of Robert Shapiro, he comes to the project with something of a second wind in the air. That momentum puts him at just the right point in his career to play an elderly gangster and even take a swing at the younger Gotti too, with the help of a lot of wigs and some make-up – particularly for his disfigured latter years. But the impressive prosthetics and hairpieces are piled on thick, and are switched so regularly, that Travolta has to act an awful lot to get his portrayal across. When you factor in the added wall of the cheese-stuffed script, the Pulp Fiction star ends up pushing so hard to push her performance through that the whole thing enters hammy territory.
That jumping back and forth through Gotti’s timeline also makes it difficult for director Kevin Connolly to find any real focus or through-line – it’s telling that when the screenplay does settle down to show us Gotti and his wife, Victoria (Kelly Preston), their long-suffering bond through illegal thick and corrupt thin begins to cohere into something tangible and compelling. But then, we’re off again, weaving through this cartoonish, two-dimensional depiction of a complex family web.
The problem is that nobody’s ever given the chance to bring some depth to the screen – and that, you suspect, is because the film is based on the memoir by John Gotti Jr., Gotti’s son. Gotti Jr. takes a plea deal when in prison and is then presented as the only person as saintly as his father: the young man had the courage, we’re told, to cooperate with the authorities, while Gotti’s determined loyalty to his family made him a hero in his son’s eyes. Given we start the movie with Gotti narrating, though, it’s jarring to then be served this rose-tinted portrait of the man painted by someone else entirely; there’s no consistency to anchor the swaggering, Martin Scorsese-esque jukebox flourishes, or sell the moments of anger and anguish that Gotti supposedly goes through – let alone justify the sympathy that the movie has for its morally dubious subjects. It’s about as convincing as Theresa May’s impression of a human being.
The result is an unfortunate mess of a movie, one that Travolta can’t redeem no matter how cinematic Gotti’s real life story is. “This life ends one of two ways: death or jail,” he tells us at the start. “I did both.” What follows makes about as much sense as that sentence.