The true story of John Gotti, the notorious mob enforcer who worked his way up the ranks of the Gambino crime family to become, the “Teflon Don”, the face of organised crime in Boston in the 1980s.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
It’s not often you come across a film based on a potentially interesting true story of one of the most notorious mobsters in history that turns out to be this much of a turkey. Gotti isn’t just a film that pales in comparison to dozens of gangster films – Goodfellas, being a particularly obvious touchstone here – but looks all the more embarrassing for how it looks like nothing more than the result of someone with (sorry) not very much talent trying to copy those exact films but ending up with a very bad parody instead.
Directed by Kevin Connolly (known best as the guy who plays the insufferable “E” in the ultimate dude-bro show, Entourage) and written by Leo Rossi (a well-established actor who has written three very badly received films over three decades) and Lem Dobbs (the writer of the brilliant Dark City and a small selection of films of various quality since), the resulting film is actually a lot worse than you might expect from that particular group of filmmakers. Connolly, after all, may be a pretty bad actor but he has built up a decent career of directing b-grade TV shows and, as for Dobbs, no one who wrote something as inventive and powerful as Dark City can possibly be all bad, regardless of how few films of note he has made since.
Gotti, though, is a shockingly bad film on every imaginable level. The dialogue is a hilariously awful collection of bad gangster movie clichés. The plot is all but entirely indecipherable and made worse by its clumsy flashback-structure. The acting is, at best, phoned in, at worst as cliche-ridden as the characters themselves. The ‘80s production design is distractingly over-the-top with a collection of big clothes and bigger hair that makes the whole thing look like a lifeless, humourless take on a Flock of Seagulls video.
Perhaps worst of all, though, even if one could hardly accuse the film of being particularly hagiographic about its truly monstrous subject, it also never suggests that Gotti was ever interesting or human enough to be worthy of his own biopic in the first place.
Gotti, as presented here, is just your average stereotype of a horribly violent criminal who isn’t too terrible but is still kind of a dick to his family (think Tony Soprano but with all the interesting and compelling bits surgically removed) and is as impossible to give a damn about as any of the other interchangeable “made men” he shares screen time with – including his son, John Jr. who, would you know it, gets drawn into the family business but kind of regrets it later. Gangster films often have an uphill battle trying to get audiences to care about terrible people but Gotti barely even tries.
If there is one thing that comes close to saving all this, it’s watching John Travolta giving his most scenery-chewing performance since his trash-cinema heyday of Face/Off and Broken Arrow. It’s not what anyone would call a “good” performance because even if it is fairly faithful to the real guy (astonishingly), it always comes across as highly unbelievable and more than a little mannered, but it is at least pretty memorable. Still, even watching Travolta devour the film wholesale is never as much fun as it could be when the film in question is so thoroughly turgid, dull and entirely lacking in any sort of self-awareness.
What all this means, then, is that Gotti isn’t so much Travolta’s latest Face/Off so much as it is his latest Battlefield Earth: a personal passion project that has opened to critical scorn and public indifference. It’s not as bad as Battlefield Earth, of course – almost no film in the history of cinema is as bad as Battlefield Earth – but the fact that it’s even in the same ballpark should tell you all you need to know about it.
Even by August/September standards (the time between the American summer season and the roll out of the year’s awards-courting heavy-hitters is notorious for being a dumping ground for some of the year’s worst films) Gotti shares its placing with Mile 22 as the very worst of the year’s worst films.