Humans are creatures built for story telling. Present us with images and we’ll do the work for you, imagining the connective tissue between them and telling it to ourselves. We will organize the seemingly random into a coherent, cohesive narrative. Or at least, that’s what I used to think — but now I’m taking all my Film Theory texts and chucking them out the window because Speed Kills just proved it all wrong. This movie not only refuses to tell a story — it undermines the viewers’ attempts to interpret the narrative for themselves. It’s a montage run amok. It’s a film stitched out of senseless scenes, devoid of tension or even logic. Whatever actual plot was supposed to connect it all happens off-screen, in scenes nobody chose to film, and what’s left is the filler. 90+ minutes of filler.
Which kinda makes my job hard, because I’d like to tell you what this movie is about. And yet I can’t BECAUSE I DON’T EVEN KNOW. So here, briefly, is my best guess:
John Travolta plays Ben Aronoff, an out-of-business contractor from NJ who decides to move his wife and three kids to Miami for… reasons. And I think he had some vague mob connections up north, maybe? Anyway, while thinking about how to jumpstart his new Floridian lifestyle, he sees a motorboat and falls in love. Seriously, if there is one takeaway you’re supposed to get from this movie, it’s that boats are sexy. That much I can tell you with absolute certainty, because boats are described in those terms on multiple occasions. And also because every time Aronoff is standing on a boat he looks like he’s got someone rubbing his rudder below frame (and 50 percent of the time he just might). Anyway, since apparently success has nothing to do with actual, practical experience and everything to do with passion, Aronoff decides to build and race motorboats for a living. Cool.
Oh, by the way, the whole Florida move happens in 1962. However, that’s not the start of the film. The actual first scene takes place in 1987 — a date I had to math out for myself from the subsequent “25 years earlier” time-jump. And time, like plot, is something that is flimsy and incoherent in this film. The entire 25-year span of the narrative passes in fits and starts, and you’ll only notice it when a title card gives you a hint, or a child suddenly becomes an adult, or Ronald Reagan shows up on the TV. At one point, Ben sleeps with a woman named Emily (Katheryn Winnick) — and the next time you see her, they’re married and have a baby. Well, I assume they’re married. We don’t see the wedding, but they’re definitely living together. Also, Ben stole her from her previous boyfriend, the King of Jordan. You know what? I’ll stop.
So, boats are sexy and Ben is having a grand old time with them, but then an organized crime honcho named Meyer Lansky arrives and I think they know each other, and Lansky wants to have some sort of illicit dealings with Ben maybe, but Ben wants to go straight. I think. Meanwhile, Ben wins a lot of races with his super-fast Cigarette boat, and he’s cheating on his wife with women around the world because, duh, boats are sexy. And now it’s 1970 and Ben’s son Andrew is paralyzed in a car accident — but other than that he’s doing pretty well compared to Ben’s other two kids, who never even get named. At the hospital Ben has a fight with his wife Kathy (Jennifer Esposito) about how he’s neglecting the family — and then in the next scene Ben tells his business partner Shelley (Michael Weston) that they’re getting divorced. Andrew is understandably upset with his father for being pretty terrible, but then Ben wins him over by offering to buy him a horse stable to run. And that’s the last we see of Andrew, Kathy, or the rest of family #1.
Drug smugglers, working for Lansky, are using Ben’s super fast boats to, ya know, smuggle drugs — and he’s covering his tracks well enough that the DEA can’t pin anything on him. But he’s still not making enough money to keep his sexy boat business afloat (GET IT?!), so Ben goes to meet with Lansky… and then some lackeys close the doors on the meeting and I can’t tell you what they discussed. I can only imagine Ben gets a loan from Lansky, because there’s a lot of talk later on about whether he’s “paid in full” or not. Naturally, Lansky isn’t going to let Ben off the hook even if he has paid him back. And Lansky’s idiot nephew, Robbie (Kellan Lutz), has a bone to pick with Ben because he didn’t remember his name? Or because he keeps beating Robbie in boat races? Anyway, Robbie is a meathead.
As mentioned, Ben woos a king’s girlfriend and starts family #2, all while his business keeps booming. He even parlays his friendship with Vice President George Bush (Matthew Modine) into a massive boat supply contract with the Coast Guard, in a what mostly amounts to yet another pivotal event being told via a shot of Ben being happy on a boat. The problem, of course, is that there has always been the vague threat of the federal drug investigation butting up against the criminals Ben is involved with, but the film is so concerned with how sexy the boats are that it doesn’t stop and define the danger, or Ben’s connection to it all, until it’s far too late. And it also doesn’t help that we’ve known since the very first scene just what Ben’s ultimate fate will be.
And here’s where I’ll put a Spoiler Alert for the sake of those who truly don’t want to know…
In 1987 Ben is shot and killed in his car by contract killers, presumably hired by Robbie. We see it at the start of the film, and we see it again at the end. The reason has something to do with Ben refusing to help the organized crime organization cover their tracks with his legitimate businesses, or their fear that he’ll spill what he knows to the investigators (though none of that is ever made really clear). And I wouldn’t have bothered sharing his fate with you, if it weren’t for the most fascinating part of this entire film:
It’s inspired by a true story. In 1987 a power boat mogul named Don Aronow was similarly gunned down by a killer who was hired by his power boat racing rival, Ben Kramer. It was a crime that went unsolved for years, and actually sounds pretty fascinating. The history and characters have been fictionalized — I’m not sure if Don’s mafia ties were anything more than speculative, for example — but it’s clear that the filmmakers took the life of this larger-than-life man and sort of tried to make it even more mythic. Unfortunately, in the process they focused so squarely on the figure of Ben/Don that they lost sight of the surrounding circumstances that might have given his life and death any meaning. Just because the man was real, it doesn’t mean his story is just going to make sense — or that we’ll care.
In the end, this film is too inept to even be considered fun without the aid of a drinking game (take a shot every time you figure out what year it is, for example), and it’s certainly not the wacky time I had envisioned when I first posited our Grand Unified Travolta-Has-Always-Been-Nic-Cage theory. Still, I can’t say the film was a complete failure.
Unless, of course, you wanna tell me that boats AREN’T sexy.
Speed Kills is available in theaters and on VOD and Digital HD as of November 16th.