Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Kevin Connolly
Stars: John Travolta, Spencer Lofranco, Kelly Preston, Stacy Keach, Pruitt Taylor Vince, William Demeo, Chris Mulkey, Lydia Hull, Leo Rossi, Donald John Volpenhein.
New York mob boss John Gotti (played here by John Travolta) was known as the “dapper Don” for his stylish designer suits. He was also known as the “Teflon Don” because very few charges brought against him by the FBI actually stuck and resulted in convictions.
This biopic about the gangster spans some thirty years and charts his ruthless rise to power from hit man for the notorious Gambino crime family to powerful head of one of the largest crime syndicates in US history. His rise to power in the 80s came at a time when the FBI was vigorously attempting to destroy the power of the mob. In 1992 he was eventually convicted of five murders and conspiracy charges. He was incarcerated in a federal prison in Springfield, Missouri, where he died of throat cancer in 2002.
Gotti is based on the book Shadow Of My Father, written by Gotti’s son John A Gotti jr,. The book has been adapted to the screen by Lem Dobbs (The Limey, Dark City, etc) and character actor Leo Rossi. However, given the source material, and the fact that Gotti junior himself served as a consultant on the film, one suspects that we are getting a somewhat sanitised version of the character, and it whitewashes over his more psychopathic edges. It depicts him as something of a local hero who protected the neighbourhood and even threw lavish street parties. Gotti itself is a tale of power, ambition, loyalty, betrayal, family, but it also serves up a complex father/son relationship as well as the usual family melodramas and tragedies.
The film largely unfolds from the perspective of the younger Gotti (played here by relative newcomer Spencer Lofranco). The story unfolds in a series of extended flashbacks that are linked by the story of Gotti junior’s last visit to his father in prison. Gotti, who was the heir apparent to his father’s criminal empire, was jailed in 1999 on charges including bribery and conspiracy. However, he wanted to plead guilty to the charges as a way of finally leaving the world of crime behind him and getting the federal prosecutors off his back. He was seeking his father’s advice on the best course of action.
Cinema audiences love tales about gangsters and the mob, but unfortunately this biopic about charismatic gang boss John Gotti is not in the same league as those other classic epic New York set films like The Godfather I and II, Goodfellas, Sergio Leone’s sweeping Once Upon A Time In America, or even the HBO tv series The Sopranos. This is a bit of a dull affair that seems to routinely tick off all the usual clichés of the genre without adding anything particularly new or fresh.
However, this long gestating project though had something of a troubled development history, taking nearly a decade to reach the screen, with cast changes and numerous script rewrites. Several directors, including Oscar winner Barry Levinson (Rain Man, etc), Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, The Rocketeer, etc) and even Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook, etc) were all attached to the project at one stage.
The directorial reins eventually fell to actor Kevin Connolly, best known for playing E in the hit tv series Entourage. His handling of the material is uninspired and lacks the epic sweep and grandeur and violent touches that a director like Scorsese would have brought to the fore. Connolly employs a fractured, non-linear narrative style that leaps back and forth in time and gives us the highlights of Gotti’s brutal reign of violence, but without any real sense of time and place. He does incorporate some archival footage and newsreel footage to add a sense of authenticity to the material. The soundtrack uses plenty of period music, but much of the soundtrack consists of aggressive hip hop from rapper Pitbull, which is ultimately grating. Cinematographer Michael Barrett (Ted and Ted 2, etc) attempts to give the film a gritty colour palette.
And the film is bookended with a clumsy device that has the deceased Gotti talking directly to the audience from beyond the grave.
Gotti has been one of the worst reviewed films to be screened so far this year. Admittedly it is far from perfect, but despite its numerous flaws, there are some positives to the film, notably the committed performance from Travolta himself, who came on board fairly early at the request of the Gotti family themselves. This was something of a passion project for Travolta, who brings the requisite charm and menace to the role, but also consciously softens his image.
Travolta’s presence was enough to attract a strong ensemble cast, including his real-life wife Kelly Preston, who plays Gotti’s neurotic and pill popping wife Victoria; veteran Stacy Keach, who brings gravitas and a subtle menace to his role as Aniello Dellacroce, his powerful mentor and advisor; and Taylor Pruitt Vince as Gotti’s doomed best friend and unreliable gangster Angelo Ruggiero. Lofranco seems miscast and far too young to be playing the younger Gotti and delivers a rather one note and dull performance that lacks the necessary air of ruthlessness.
Gotti has been the subject of several movies, mini-series, and tv movies, including a 1996 biopic starring Armand Assante as the charismatic gangster. However, one wishes that this biopic had far more edge and class. We are yet to see a definitive move about this colourful and notorious mob boss.