If you are only recently familiar with my writing, you might not know that I have a rule when it comes to John Travolta, the actor. I have put it in far fancier and more intensive language previously, but it basically goes like this: if Travolta plays a villain in your movie, I will watch the hell out of it. And thus, I went to see GOTTI.

Some rules are worth ignoring every now and then, it turns out.

GOTTI: John Gotti
John Travolta seems…unhappy in GOTTI. (Courtesy of EFO Films)

The Idea Behind GOTTI

The life story of John Gotti. Sort of.

The criminal life story of John Gotti. Kind of.

Basically, checking in on John Gotti and his family from the day he killed someone to become a “made man” until the day he died of cancer and a bit beyond.

It also, sort of, tells the story of his son John Gotti — called Junior but not a true Junior because he and his dad had different initials. It traces Junior from a promising acceptance at New York Military Academy to his induction into his father’s line of work to his “victory” over the United States Government.

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The Writing

GOTTI may be one of the most poorly structured films I have this year.

At points, it cannot seem to decide if it is more about John or Junior. As a result, neither gets much by way of development. You can especially feel this with Junior who ages from high school to his forties over the course of the film. However, with the time jumps, we rarely have a good feel for where he is in his life unless we are explicitly told.

I suppose you could watch for the occasional year notations on the screen and do the math. Even that, though, won’t tell you what happened to change him besides the passage of time. This afflicts John as well. Besides the character’s greying hair only the years on the screen will tell you time has changed because the script seemingly either believes Gotti never evolved over the course of his life or you won’t much give a damn if he did.

Of course, then the script should offer you something to care about. It does not. Gotti’s outsized life should be the fodder for a great script or a wild one at least. But this one can’t even deliver a rollicking bit of exploitation filmmaking.

The script also makes the odd decision to end on a note of ostensibly arguing the FBI was in the wrong for pursuing Gotti. It seems a bizarre choice given the movie never argues that Gotti wasn’t a violent criminal. Nonetheless, the final words on the screen admonish the United States government for the money and resources it spent bringing him down. It’s just strange.

GOTTI: Junior
Spencer Lofranco does the perp walk in a scene from GOTTI. (Courtesy of EFO Films)

Casting the Lead of GOTTI

As noted above, I love me some Travolta as a villain. Even in, arguably, his worst film of all time BATTLEFIELD EARTH. There his villain is so ridiculously over-the-top, it is a kind of bizarre joy to figure out how this occurred. How did an actor create such a performance and how did everyone around him go,

“Yes, that was the correct choice.”

A big part of what helps Travolta give great villain is that the man can turn on the charisma and he knows how to curdle it just right for the villain in question. His hijacker/robber in the TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3 remake? He needs to magnetic enough to hold the two-man play he’s involved with for most of the picture, but he never needs to be likable. His hitman in PULP FICTION? He needs to be so smooth and lovable his occupation only registers in moments of shocking violence. And so on.

In GOTTI, however? Apparently, someone told him,

“Yeah, I know John Gotti was this incredibly charismatic flashy type. Unapologetic and egomaniacal. But we thought maybe bland would be the better choice here.”

There is one moment, where he signs himself back into prison from a furlough and his flashes the guards this grin. It is perfect. Arrogant and seductive all at once. It’s the Gotti the movie should have got. Instead, Travolta turns in what is probably the best performance of the movie and it is still a bit of a snore.

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Casting the Rest of the GOTTI Call Sheet

When I read that Kelly Preston was going to in this film as well as Victoria Gotti, the Don’s wife, I confess I had a little bit of excitement. It sounded like a monumentally odd idea, Preston would not be the first person I would think of to play a half Italian half Russian-Jewish housewife in the mid-60s forward.

Preston has always had an off-kilter energy that I liked. Unfortunately, here is more or less just set dressing. She gets a ludicrous monologue in a courtroom scene that, again, hints a wilder, more fun movie. Otherwise, though, she gets to show off a variety of wigs and little else. Spencer Lofranco shows promise as Junior. However, as noted above, the script undoes him. It gives him no room to develop a cohesive character.

Some moments, he is a father trying to cut a plea deal and not disappoint his dad. At others, he’s a 16-year-old dealing badly with being the child of an infamous mob boss. At others still, he is a newly made man anxious to protect his father’s legacy. But he has no opportunity to show the connective tissue between those aspects of Junior. They might as well be three different characters.

GOTTI: Victoria Gotti
Kelly Preston points out the hypocrisy in the law with enthusiasm in a scene from GOTTI. (Courtesy of EFO Films)

Filming

Kevin Connolly has boldly decided the world wanted a play about Gotti but filmed.

Okay, I’m being terribly unfair. That said, GOTTI truly does have an airless quality. John Gotti was a member of a Mafia crime family from the 60s through the early 90s in New York City. I know I am a bit of a booster for the Big Apple. However, if you do not believe that Manhattan is the greatest city on Earth, you can still agree that NYC changed a lot during those years. Moreover, being a criminal, especially when New York was hell on Earth in the 70s, would have been quite the ride.

You feel none of this watching the film. GOTTI mostly unfolds on interior sets that could be in New York, New Brunswick, or New Hartford. The blandness of the performances combined with the dull sets gives you an overall sense of grey on grey on grey. I don’t know how you take the story of the most notorious gangster of the late era Mafia and make it feel bloodless but boy oh boy did they find a way.

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That’s a Wrap

I didn’t expect GOTTI to be a good movie, not really. But I did expect that it might be fun. An over the top villainous performance from Travolta means an over-the-top life? A recipe for fireworks, I say.

So, yes, I did expect GOTTI to be a bit bad. However, I never expected it to be boring. Of all the ways it might not deliver, that one certainly did not occur to me. A multiple murderer who oversaw what would become the last era of the Mafia being an effective crime family has excitement written all over it. Alas.

It may be hard to decide what was John Gotti’s greatest crime. Deciding what GOTTI’s biggest misdeed, though? Easy. Being deadly dull.

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