Every so often a movie comes along that makes you just wonder how all the stars aligned in order for a singular, unusual work of cinema to make it to the big screen. To be clear, this question can be asked about movies good and bad. In this particular case, it’s the latter. The story of the infamous mob boss John Gotti starring John Travolta, Gotti, is one of the most bewildering movies of recent memory, a bizarre yet captivating failure that leaves you repeatedly wondering one question: How? Directed by Kevin Connolly, best known as E from Entourage, Gotti has to be one of the few mob movies ever made that is truly enamored by its murderous mob boss.
John Travolta is such an interesting actor who can take over a movie with his charisma or completely derail it with over the top camp, and sometimes he can toe the line between the two as he did in American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson. Here, however, he goes way over the top with a ludicrously campy interpretation of a murderous mob boss bound by a code of macho Italian honor and family loyalty. He’s wearing a scowling grin in every one of his scenes, as if donning a miserable mug will make him a more intimidating gangster. Whatever Travolta is aiming for in Gotti achieves the opposite effect. It’s stunning to behold.
Gotti opens with Travolta’s eponymous mob boss in full goombah mode breaking the fourth wall from beyond the grave, referring to his own glory days and demise while extolling New York as “the greatest fucking city in the world.” This posthumous introduction establishes one of the weirdest tics to Gotti’s cinematic construction – it’s use of time. We first see the mob boss speaking from beyond the grave, before jumping all the way back to 1973 where a young John Gotti (which is just John Travolta given plenty of shoe polish black hair dye) is about to pull off a hit for the Gambino crime family. Then the film jumps to the ‘90s and the Teflon Don, as he was known in the tabloids, is meeting his son John Gotti, Jr. (Spencer Lofranco) as the younger Gotti considers taking a plea deal – this conversation inspires an especially hilarious moment where John Gotti is offended by the word closure, calling it “a word for over-educated, under-intelligent motherfuckers”
The film at first jumps between the ‘70s and the ‘90s before abandoning it all together in favor of a more traditional linear narrative. So why did the film focus on the younger Gotti’s plea deal in the first 15 minutes? Your guess is as good as mine. Gotti then follows its eponymous crime boss as he rises to power, committing a number of hits for his mafia mentor Neil Dellacroce (Stacey Keach). John Gotti pays for his life of crime with a number of stints in prison, which puts a strain on his marriage with Victoria Gotti (Kelly Preston, Travolta’s wife in real life).
A major part of the bizarre disconnect of Gotti is the way the film paints him as a loving, caring family man and a ruthlessly violent criminal. It’s even odder when the two intersect. During one scene where Victoria is visiting John in prison, he casually threatens to kill her and it’s met with absolutely no pushback, like it’s just this casual death threat that’s as natural as a peck on the cheek. Another unusual scene has John’s youngest son Frank killed in an accident, the child’s motorized bike darting in front of the car. Subsequent scenes have Gotti and his wife mourning, the gangster consoling his grieving wife. Then, of course, John Favara, the man who hit Frank Gotti, is abducted and murdered. Because of the way Kevin Connolly frames the accident, grieving, and subsequent murder, it’s as if he’s presented the case that John Favara had it coming and his murder was just. It’s absolutely insane.
The way the film handles the infamous hitman Sammy “The Bull” Gravano (William DeMeo), who later turned informant against Gotti, as a subhuman monster for violating the code of the mafia is equally insane and just as morally repugnant. Sammy “The Bull” was a monster who cut a deal, but the fact that he cut a deal doesn’t make him somehow worse than his equally bloodthirsty compatriots. It’s so bizarre that this movie draws this particular line in the sand. The film blatantly asserts that John Gotti is a kind of populist hero. Sure, he killed a few people here and there but he looked out for his neighborhood and was the people’s mob boss, which makes him more upstanding than the rat Sammy “The Bull.”
Aside from the film’s notably warped moral compass, Gotti is also astonishingly bizarre because of the way it uses music. There’s nothing more I’d love than to get an oral history as to how some of the baffling song choices came about. For the life of me I can’t figure out why a scene of Gotti taking a medical furlough from prison to carry out a hit is set to the “Theme from Shaft.” Some of the use of old pop and rock songs is a blatant attempt to mimic the stylistic flourishes that Martin Scorsese has brought to some of his mob classics, but Scorsese is a music buff and knows the meaning behind the songs he’s employing. The songs in Gotti seem like they were used because they were available and had one or two words that might corollate with what is occurring in the film. For example, when Gotti is acquitted in one of his many trials, The Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian” plays. I understand that his acquittal means he “walks,” but where does the Egyptian angle come in? This continues in so many different scenes be it the use of the Pet Shop Boys’ “Westend Girls” as a car bomb explodes or the absurd techno-pop of Pitbull over the end credits.
The surviving members of the Gotti family appear to have some sort of connection to the production, judging by the film’s use of family pictures, the ceaseless promotion from Angel Gotti’s Twitter feed, and the particularly loving portrait of both John Gotti and his son. You can understand how the family would want a more positive portrait of the father they knew out there, but director Kevin Connolly working from a screenplay credited to Lem Dobbs and Leo Rossi (who has a role in the film) was under no obligation to oblige. The film concludes with a title card that basically asserts that the prosecution of the younger John Gotti was a waste of time and money, a case of an innocent man railroaded even though the film shows the mob boss’ son falling into the life of organized crime, including a bar fight that leaves a man dead.
Gotti is a special kind of bad movie. Kevin Connolly seems to be pulling from every iconic mob movie in history but completely missing what makes each one of them work, opting for a smorgasbord of clichés intertwined with some bizarre hero worship for an infamous murderer. Gangster movies reflect a distorted vision of the American dream, a climbing of the social ladder through violence. Success eventually comes at a price. But in the case of Gotti, there’s a belief that the eventual cost of Gotti’s success as a crime boss was that he was persecuted because he was more famous than his crime boss predecessors. This is such a bizarre movie, a funhouse mirror version of mob movie classics where the villains are heroes and the ends justify the means. Despite its overwhelming incompetence, though, Gotti is extremely watchable because it’s so bad that it becomes good. Every choice made in the film is so baffling that sometimes you have to watch scenes more than once to try and figure out exactly what is going on, what was being attempted, and if it’s really as morally repugnant as you might initially believe. This bizarre movie has all the makings of a modern classic. Gotti is The Room of mob movies.
A wildly incompetent mob movie, Gotti is so bad that it becomes good with it’s hammy performance by John Travolta, witlessly profane dialogue, baffling music choices, and a warped moral compass that really takes a liking to its murderous mob boss.