John Travolta’s “Battlefield Earth” (2000) was one of the screen’s most notorious vanity projects, a big-budget bomb that represented the actor’s determination to bring the book by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of his beloved Scientology, to the screen no matter what. “Gotti,” based on the memoir by John A. Gotti, son of the mafia chieftain known as the “Teflon Don” for his ability to escape conviction time and time again (until he didn’t), is no less a vanity project, and it took Travolta nearly a decade to get it made.
In this case, however, the motivation wasn’t religious conviction, but the simple desire to sink his teeth into a juicy, eye-catching role. And as the elder Gotti, Travolta certainly doesn’t hold anything back; he preens, bellows, broods and intimidates ferociously—on the rare occasions when he must show sorrow he does so extravagantly, too. Even in the rare quiet moments when he appears to be underplaying, he’s actually over-the-top. Travolta is obviously having a grand time playing the stereotypical goombah, and since he appears in virtually every scene, you get an awful lot of him—so much, in fact, that there’s little room for the rest of the cast to get any traction. It’s far too hammy a turn to be considered remotely good acting, but like his highly mannered Robert Shapiro in “The People Vs. O.J. Simpson,” it’s hard to take your eyes off him.
A pity, then, that the movie as a whole is such a shapeless mess. The script by Lem Dobbs and Leo Rossi (who also takes a supporting role as Bart Boriello, one of Gotti’s chief lieutenants) attempts to give it some focus by structuring Gotti’s rise from hit-man to head of the Gambino family as a series of flashbacks from a conversation between the incarcerated, terminally ill John Sr. and John Jr. (Spencer Rocco Lofranco), in which the older man tries to dissuade his son and successor from accepting a plea deal from the government, fighting in court until the very end.
But the idea comes to nothing because as edited by Jim Flynn, the picture is a chaotic assemblage of short, disconnected scenes interrupted by snippets of archival footage, bits of narration and even moments when Travolta breaks the fourth wall by talking directly into the camera. The result is a “one damned thing after another” brew that will bewilder and confuse any viewer who doesn’t already possess some basic knowledge of Gotti’s rise and fall.
So we get a restaging of the murder of Gambino boss Paul Castellano (Donald John Volpenhein) by Gotti’s crew, which led to his assumption of headship in the family. But while there’s lots of back-and-forth between Gotti and his mentor Neil Dellacroce (Stacy Keach) about divisions in the Gambino gang and its relation to the other mafia families in New York and beyond, the actual interconnections are never made clear. (Periodically we return to scenes of Vinny Gigante, the boss of the Genovese family played by Sal Rendino, doing his famous insanity shtick on the city’s streets, for example, but his role as a rival to Gotti isn’t clarified.)
It is, however, related to another story thread about Gotti’s right-hand man Angelo Ruggiero (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who orders an unsanctioned hit on “Gaspipe” Casso (Andrew Fiscella) that goes awry, forcing Gotti to “sideline”—or essentially excommunicate—him. (Ruggiero has earlier blundered when one of his home phones was wiretapped by the government and he was recorded saying some very revealing things, but in this telling little came of it other than that it encouraged Gotti to take out Castellano.)
Ruggiero also ties into another of the picture’s dubious aspects—its attempt to humanize, even sympathize with, Gotti. Standing over his ex-pal’s grave months later, the Don opines that while cancer might have been the stated cause of death, it was really Angelo’s sadness over his ostracism from “the life” that killed him—he died of a broken heart! The same sort of saccharine violin is played in the sequence dealing with the death of Gotti’s twelve-year old son Frankie (Nico Bustamante), who was killed while riding his scooter in the street by a driver blinded by the sun. The grief felt by Gotti and his wife Victoria (Kelly Preston) is so operatic in scope that it overshadows the accompanying news report that the driver was shortly afterward hauled off in a van by three thugs never to be seen again, and that the sole witness to the abduction suddenly lost his memory when the same guys visited him.
One can see the same inclination to airbrush things in the picture’s treatment of the rubout of a trusted member of Gotti’s crew (Chris Kerson) who’s suspected of being a snitch, and in its attitude of revulsion toward Sammy Gravano (William DeMeo), the turncoat who eventually testified against Gotti and sent him to the slammer.
The final blow in the near-glorification of Gotti and the tough-guy life he represents comes in archival snippets, most from his very public funeral procession through the streets, in which neighbors loudly profess their admiration, mostly because he kept the place safe—and saw to it that undesirables didn’t cause any problems. (In an earlier scene, Gotti is even shown ordering one of his goons to help an old lady with her grocery bags!) Especially in the present political climate there might be a message here about what people are willing to overlook in the name of security, but the movie seems blissfully unaware of it.
And what of young John Gotti, whose memoir served as the narrative skeleton for the script? As portrayed blankly by Lofranco, he’s depicted as just a pretty boy who might make some mistakes (like getting involved in a bar fight in which a man is left dead—an incident that’s shown with no follow-up except for the elder Gotti’s anger over such a youthful indiscretion) but in the end did his dad one better by beating all the charges the government lodged against him. The point seems to be that overreaching prosecutors are the real villains, and that it’s great that people who are treated “unfairly” by law enforcement deserve to be let off. (There is contemporary relevance here as well, of course, but the movie seems not to notice such niceties.)
Lofranco, it should be noted, seems to age very little through the course of “Gotti,” even as Travolta does, markedly. Perhaps given the low budget of the production, the appropriate makeup funds had to be allotted solely to the star. The threadbare quality of the picture is apparent elsewhere as well: there are some establishing shots of New York City, but otherwise Ohio was the site of the shoot, and the Cincinnati locations aren’t terribly convincing (the hotel ballroom where the younger Gotti’s wedding reception is set, for instance, hardly looks as ritzy as it should). But production designer Patricio N. Farrell has done as best he can to create a period atmosphere, and cinematographer Michael Barrett likewise to conceal the limitations under which he was operating.
Kevin Connolly is credited as director of “Gotti,” but one probably shouldn’t blame him too much for the result, which looks like a desperate—and unsuccessful—attempt to cobble together something coherent from a jumble of scenes, each of which was designed to showcase Travolta rather than to meld into an overarching narrative line. Perhaps the basic fault lies in an excess of behind-the-scenes involvement. When you add up the producers, co-producers and executive producers shown in the credits, the number is forty-plus—maybe a world’s record, and probably more than the number of seats in the auditorium that will be occupied by paying customers at the majority of the movie’s theatrical showings.