Maybe Hollywood is better served when it makes movies about fictional gangsters instead of actual ones.
This movie sets out to be a character study of John Gotti, who worked (whacked?) his way to the top of the Gambino crime family before he was convicted of five murders and racketeering and sent to prison in 1992.
In his defense, we learn that Gotti was fiercely devoted to his family, that he lived by the rules of his chosen profession and that he was generous to people in his Queens neighborhood.
The movie is punctuated by actual news footage of the Dapper Don, and it takes its story from a book by his son, John Gotti, Jr., who seems to have written it to settle scores against snitches and other associates who maligned his father.
John Travolta gives his impression of a guy who says his first break, initiation into the Gambino family, came after he killed a man. There followed two short prison terms, which taught him never to trust someone who hadn’t done time.
Travolta’s real-life wife, Kelly Preston, does a nice job as the mercurial Victoria Gotti. Spencer Lofranco is overmatched as John, Jr., possibly because he looks 17 years old when he’s playing a 17-year-old and also when he visits his father in prison 20 years later.
One flaw in the film may be that it went through too many rewrites, too many producers and too many casting changes. But I don’t think that’s it.
My guess is that the people who made the movie were so sympathetic to Gotti that they figured a recitation of his achievements — often without context — would convince viewers that he was basically a decent person. The result is a fast-moving narrative that simply doesn’t hang together.
The most heartfelt scenes come after Gotti’s son Frank is killed in a car accident; we see the parents’ grief and, a few minutes later, Gotti arranging to take the family to Florida so as to be out of town while the driver of the car is killed.
But that’s it. The rest is shootings and grousing over drinks about other mobsters, interspersed with moments of father-son bonding.
John Gotti was a real person who trafficked in crime and extortion. His silk ties and big black cars were not paid for by Gambino membership dues. The families of people whose deaths he arranged were just as distraught as his family was when his own son died.
It’s not easy to turn someone like John Gotti into a sympathetic character. This movie doesn’t make the sale.
America’s film fascination with gangsters goes back a long way. There were Warner Bros.’ James Cagney movies of the 30s, noir films of the ’40s and “On the Waterfront” with Marlon (“I coulda been a contender”) Brando in the 1950s. “The Godfather” in 1972 kicked off movies and television series that show the professional-personal aspects of hoodlum life to this day.
Some of those movies and television series may have been inspired by actual characters, but I can’t think of another biopic about a real-life modern-day mobster. Maybe this one be the last.