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Credit: Brian Douglas/Lionsgate/Emmet/Furla Oasis Films

Back in 2011, I attended a Barnum-esque press conference announcing the go-ahead on a biopic of John Gotti. In the room that day were John Travolta, who would be playing New York’s notorious “Teflon Don,” then-director Nick Cassavetes, and John Gotti Jr., who was asked who should play him in the film. His response: “Eddie Murphy.” Over the following weeks big, splashy names were added to the in-the-works crime-world saga (Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Lindsay Lohan). And in the weeks after that, they all fell out. Everyone, that is, except Travolta.

Seven long years later, Gotti has finally snuck its way into theaters without screening in advance for critics. And it’s hard to see why Travolta stuck it out for so long. It’s not a good movie. But the blame can’t be laid at its star’s Ferragamo-shod feet. Decked out in a closetful of shiny wide-lapel suits, snug goombah turtlenecks, and pinkie rings the size of hubcaps, Travolta somehow manages to summon a ferocious and committed performance while everything else around him falls to pieces. He’s as Teflon as Gotti ever was. Travolta has always been a pro, even (perhaps especially) in movies beneath his talents like this one. He doesn’t know how to half-step it. No, he may not look much like the real Gotti, but then again he didn’t look much like “Bill Clinton” in Primary Colors either – and he was great in it. Somehow he manages to inhabit roles even if they don’t appear to suit him on the surface. And in Gotti, his clenched-jaw scowl and made-man swagger are the only things that make the movie even remotely worth checking out.

Moralists can debate all they want whether there should even be a movie about a stone-cold killer like John Gotti in the first place. But if we lived by those high-minded standards we wouldn’t have movies like Bonnie and Clyde, Goodfellas, and Donnie Brasco. So let’s just stick to what’s on screen for now. Clumsily directed by Entourage actor Kevin Connolly, the film opens with Travolta’s Gotti talking directly to the camera from beyond the grave. If there’s a more dispiriting narrative device to kick off a film with, I’m all ears. With a mix of braggadocio and profanity, he sets up the story of his rise and fall.

Set mostly in New York’s outer boroughs and some of the country’s harsher penitentiaries, we see this Italian-American thug/family man rise up through the ladder of the Gambino crime family with the help of a world-weary mentor (Stacy Keach) mainly due to his complete amorality when it comes to murdering rivals in cold blood and his almost messianic belief in the code of the Cosa Nostra. Every once in a while, the film flashes forward to show us Travolta’s much older and dying Gotti in jail telling these “highlights” to his son and heir, John Gotti Jr. (Spencer Rocco Lofranco), who’s trying to decide whether to serve a long stretch in jail or agree to a plea deal.

The problem with the film’s buckshot “this-happened-and-then-that-happened” storyline is that Connolly keeps hurtling ahead from scene to scene trying to touch every base in Gotti’s life of crime without every letting any one moment breathe long enough for it to resonate. It just feels like John Gotti’s Greatest Hits – literally. One minute Keach’s Neil Dellacroce drops that he has cancer and the next he’s dead and Gotti’s orchestrating the assassination of boss Paul Castellano, outside Sparks Steakhouse. But there’s never any time to consider what any of it means. Why is he different than any other mobster? How did he square the contradictions of wanting the best for his kids while allowing one of them to follow in his footsteps? What motivated a man who swore allegiance to a chain of command to arrange for the murder of his own don? These sorts of things are all just swept under the rug in favor of a blur of blood spatter and crime-scene tape that zips past like you’re watching the film with your finger on the fast-forward button. Connolly’s in too much of a rush to get somewhere and doesn’t seem to know what that destination is.

It’s a shame because while I don’t find Gotti’s life all that interesting, the film’s hyperactive impatience wastes a handful of performances that are better than average. Pruitt Taylor Vince as one of Gotti’s lieutenants who keeps needing to be bailed out of trouble brings a hapless, hangdog air of tragedy, Kelly Preston juices up the thankless role of mafioso wife with a den mother’s feral protectiveness, and Chris Mulkey quietly steals every scene he’s in as a soldier playing both sides against the middle before he meets his maker in grisly fashion. But this is Travolta’s show for better or worse. He provides the only clue to the mystery of the Gotti charisma that made him a media celebrity in the ‘90s as the Dapper Don. Whether he’s firing off cocky wisecracks or barking threats at his inept underlings, he grabs your attention. It’s too bad that the rest of the movie lets him down so badly. After eight years of loyalty to this belated and disappointing film, Travolta deserved better. C

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