The creation of this god-forsaken gangster biopic has the feel of a macho Mad Libs. The life story of mob boss John Gotti is headlined by John Travolta, directed by E from Entourage (A.K.A. Kevin Connolly), adapted from John Gotti Junior’s memoir Shadow of My Father, with music from Pitbull. But this is 2018, a time when a reality TV star is president and aspiring to be a dictator. So maybe Gotti is just a perfectly nonsensical disaster for our times.
You may have heard about Gotti back in December, when it was poised to hit VOD. But ten days before that digital bow, Lionsgate dropped the biopic, leaving its future uncertain. To say it was a surprise when the prestigious Cannes Film Festival announced it’d host the dumped pic’s world premiere would be an understatement. Yet there would be no red carpet to promote it, and only one screening in the festival’s smallest venue. The buzz coming of Cannes was beyond bad. Upon its theatrical release, Gotti boasts a Rotten Tomatoes score of 0%. So of course, I had to see it. The good news is, you don’t.
This movie is an unmitigated travesty. It begins with Travolta talking directly to camera with a belabored New Yawk accent thick enough to choke a horse. He welcomes us to New York City, and delivers this confounding line about being a mafioso, “This life ends one of two ways: Dead, or in jail. I did both.” Don’t think too long about how this suggests that Gotti died twice. Don’t think about how every life ends in death, because the movie won’t. Instead, it pitches us willy-nilly up and down Gotti’s timeline of crime without any apparent concern for mood, story, or pace.
In one moment, we’re with him in 1973 on his first hit. In the next, he’s old and in prison, seated across a table from his grown son, Junior. There’s no apparent logic or tonal flow to these choices. An aggressive amount of Travolta voiceover is used in a naked attempt to give them any semblance of continuity. In one instance, Gotti cuts from a scene of the now middle-aged mobster being visited by his young children in prison. In the next, he’s driving down a street as the voiceover informs us that when he got out of jail, he had to ask Junior where their house was. Then we watch that happen. “Junior, where’s our house?” That might sound like a joke. But it feels like Connolly and editor Jim Flynn struggling to give this film any sense of structure. They failed.
Even if you didn’t know the troubled history of its release, you’d likely guess at it because of Gotti’s desperate reliance on voiceover, so wall-to-wall you might think you’ve switched over to an audiobook. Beyond that, the film is made up of many, many scenes that are only seconds long. One that lasts more than a minute begins to feel like a luxury. And if you’re wondering how a filmmaker might brew tension, develop character, or tell a compelling story when you’re jumping around a thirty-year timeline for moments at a time, the simple answer is you don’t.
Gotti feels torturously long because there’s no drive to the plot. Things just happen. The opening assures we already know Gotti will end up in jail and dead, so there’s no suspense on whether he’ll be caught or killed. Splashes of blood and loud pop hits strive to spark excitement to this lackluster listing of grim events. And sloppily, Gotti’s true purpose reveals itself: exonerating Junior.
The movie shows Junior falling in with his father’s criminal organization, starting a bar fight that ended in murder, and becoming a “made” man who was so fiercely protective of his father’s reputation that he ended his West Point ambitions over it. Yet, Gotti’s final act takes pains to declare the real criminal is the society that try to convict him. At one point, a tear-streaked Kelly Preston—playing Gotti’s wife/Junior’s mother Victoria—screams in the middle of a trial, “The government is the real gangsters!” Because I guess you might have missed their point if someone wasn’t frantically screaming it at you.
Gotti might have made for an interesting movie if it had focused on Junior and how his father’s shadow impacted and nearly destroyed his life, recognizing his trespasses alongside the intoxicating but toxic worldview of the infamous and imposing crime boss. But as is, the film gives only lip-service and the occasional slap upside the head to their father-son bond, with a healthy side of fawning. For pudding, Connolly offers footage of Gotti’s 2002 funeral and hastily suggests the Teflon Don was a folk hero through snippets of archival interviews where giddy goons sing the dead mobster’s praises.
Gotti was an infamous figure who made headlines and fascinated the public. But Gotti fails to capture his allure. Travolta’s performance feels uncomfortably close to a DeNiro impression. He seems to think that dropping f-bombs and swaggering about in a trench coat is inherently menacing or interesting. Likewise, the script by Lem Dobbs and Leo Rossi feels like it’s running down the highlights of Gotti’s criminal career, as if it’s a conversation they’ve had with the audience a thousand times. There’s too little setup for big dramatic moments to land, and too many characters feel like mere citations. The whole film feels rushed and yet endless. There’s no momentum to fall into, no satisfying thread to follow. Instead, there’s scene after scene of Travolta living his gangster fantasy, acting like he’s never met a piece of scenery he didn’t want to chew with relish as he makes crass pronouncements like, “If I robbed a church and had the steeple sticking out of my ass, I’d still say I didn’t do it!”
You might think this sounds hilariously bad. It must be so bad it’s kind of good, right? Wrong. Gotti is not remotely fun, even ironically. It’s a poorly made film that centers around one performance that’s hammy and yet boring. It’s plotless and plodding. Petty and uninspired. And when it finally ends with a bookend of dead Gotti popping back for one last eye-roll-inducing one-liner, I thought, “This is a crime against cinema.” So you know what? Maybe it’s a fitting tribute to Gotti after all.