‘Gotti’ Stumbles Through the Life of the Notorious Mobster

Gotti” is one of the oddest recent biopics. A take on the life of notorious New York mobster John Gotti, the movie throws every tough guy cliché at you, scored to baffling music choices and clunky time loops. The real gangster was known for being quite the stylish character, deemed “The Dapper Don” by the media. Here John Travolta wears the suits, has the silver hair and shows off his ability to sound like a goodfella, but he is a pilgrim wandering around a movie that lacks what made the real guy morbidly interesting.

Travolta plays Gotti in apparently three different time zones: His young years as a street thug moving up the ranks of the Gambino crime family, his days in power as New York City’s top don in the 1980s, and the final, hard years in prison as cancer became his ultimate nemesis. Keeping track of the plot is a chore because the film zig zags from moment to moment, caring little for clarity or being linear. But the other main character is Gotti’s son John Jr. (Spencer Rocco Lofranco), who drops out of the military academy to follow in dad’s footsteps. John is there for Gotti’s most notorious moments, including the assassination of his own boss, in order to rise and take over. Gotti’s wife Victoria (Kelly Preston) is the dutiful mob wife until it gets to be too much, including the tragic loss of their young son in an accident. As Gotti muscles and hustles his way through NY, he is closely watched by mentor Neil Dellacroce (Stacey Keach) and has an entourage that includes foot soldiers like Sammy Gravano (William DeMeo) and partners like Angelo Ruggiero (Pruitt Taylor Vince). But as Gotti rises, inevitably his own ambition will net him in.

Mob bosses are back in vogue at the movies, with Colombia’s Pablo Escobar leading the resurrection in shows like “Narcos,” and two movies where he was played by major leading men Benicio Del Toro and Javier Bardem. Apparently someone thought it was time to dip back into the endless well of American crime. “Gotti” was directed by Kevin Connolly, whose previous work mostly includes acting and directing stints in shows like “Entourage.” This probably explains Connolly’s curious editing choices when it comes to the film’s tone. The gritty cinematography competes with a glossy soundtrack. The opening credits feature real footage of Gotti walking in and out of court, out of his fancy cars, looking bullish at the camera, while a song by Pitbull and Leona Lewis, “Amore,” pounds along. It’s almost self-parodying to have shots of Gotti rushing by to Lewis crooning, “mi amore, I waited for you to save me tonight.” The film itself never strives for the crime opera of something like Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather.” Through-out the movie people are shot, stabbed and beaten up to jams like Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” and Blondie’s “Ring My Bell.” There was a bit of campy fun to a scene where a gangster gets whacked in their car to the trumpets in “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack. Connolly wants to throw around songs of the period, without realizing they are also supposed to set tone, atmosphere or emphasize dramatic ideas.

The music aside, “Gotti” primarily suffers from an unfocused narrative. It would be interesting to read the screenplay by Lem Dobbs and Leo Rossi, because you suspect it has been chopped up and re-arranged beyond recognition. The film can’t decide if it wants to follow Gotti or John Jr., or how to even frame the character. Is he pure scum? Complicated victim of environment? The ending features much footage of neighborhood locals angry at his eventual conviction, telling the camera that Gotti did a lot for his community. Yet we never see him ever mingle with anyone in the neighborhood or do anything to buy support, except for one moment where he blocks the cops from shutting down a block party. This story was already told before in HBO’s 1996 “Gotti” starring Armand Assante as the mob boss. That was a much better movie telling Gotti’s story clearly and with a better idea of who he was, it also provided better insights into how the whole cosa nostra world he inhabited worked. By the late 1980s, the American mob was going through interesting, chaotic changes following a period of focused infiltration and arrests by the FBI. This movie has few insights into anything, it is just scene after scene of Travolta walking down the street, telling someone to tell someone else he will cut their head off, chubby mobsters sitting around and complaining about so and so, while making yet more threats. Essentially it is all one big stereotype, without the personal touch of Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” or the intense storytelling of “Scarface.”

Because he is nearly in every scene, Travolta’s task is no small feat. He skillfully pulls off the accent and walk of a New York mob boss, but the film itself reduces him to being a mere cartoon. He smacks around John Jr., telling him to never back down, he warns his wife to never let their kids dress as cops for Halloween, he orders whacks all around without any context we care about. Stacey Keach seems to be enjoying himself smoking cigars and looking like a don, but Spencer Rocco Lofranco is reduced to a criminal Ken Doll, there to look buffed and get life lessons in loyalty and honor from dad. These are quite talented actors, but it is the film that is not serving them well. Much of “Gotti” is one big blur because it is missing a central idea or narrative. Everyone feels as if they are just there, doing what you expect tough Italian men to do in a standard mafia movie. Some of the editing doesn’t even have proper flow. Gotti will sit in a room discussing how he might whack someone and then we suddenly cut to a cemetery and discover a major character has died from cancer.

You cannot say a subject never deserves a movie. No doubt John Gotti could be the focus of a great crime drama. But with this “Gotti” crime doesn’t pay.

Gotti” releases June 15 in theaters nationwide.