Editor's note: The review copy of the film provided by the studio did not contain the final music cues.
In Gotti, we hear the title character praise his son for standing his ground in a bar brawl.
"Never take a backward step," declares John Sr., played ferociously by John Travolta, whose jutting chin and bristling tone suggest the alpha traits that made Gotti a feared crime boss and a towering presence in the life of his oldest son (the script is by Lem Dobbs and Philadelphia native Leo Rossi, and based on John Jr.'s self-published memoir).
Gotti's advice about backward steps should have been heeded by director Kevin Connolly. The Entourage star-turned-director opens his movie with John Gotti at the Brooklyn Bridge, addressing the audience, ready to narrate the (edited) story of his life. We then take a backward step, in the form of a flashback, to visit the Gotti household in Queens, then another flashback to look in on Gotti in federal prison.
After a few of these bewildering flashback-within-a-flashback leaps, we're not really sure where we are — not even Connolly's helpful title cards, and flashes of music and fashion designed to give us a general sense of time and place.
Instead confusion reigns, and questions arise: Do hard-boiled mobsters really listen to Duran Duran?
Or, more urgently — whose funeral are we watching? Bullets fly, bodies pile up, characters come and go in body bags. It's easy to lose your place in Gotti, which haphazardly revisits noteworthy events (one hesitates to say greatest hits) in the life of the so called Dapper Don (Travolta dresses the part).
We see the murder that convinced mob bosses to "open the books" and admit him as a "made man," the proud day his oldest son follows suit, the awful day his youngest is killed in a traffic accident. We see his famous acquittals (hence the Teflon Don), his convictions, and the day John Jr. (Spencer Rocco Lofranco) visits him in prison to say that he's had enough of jail, of constant law-enforcement surveillance, of "the life."
Is John Jr. betraying his father, or finally becoming the stand-your-ground man his father wanted him to be? The question gets lost in the movie's confused presentation. Gotti is a jumble of ideas and surfaces borrowed from other mob movies. At the funeral scene, for instance, Connolly makes an homage to The Godfather — a priest speaks at the graveside while men in dark suits nod and whisper and secretly plot to kill a rival boss. When the restaurant for the assassination is selected, the dialogue is exactly the same — "It's perfect for us."
In other moments, Connolly doffs his cap to GoodFellas, sudden outbursts of grisly violence set to popular music. Gotti ends up feeling like a kitschy assemblage of other directors' ideas.
And also evasive. Although it's asserted in the movie that Gotti never killed anyone who wasn't in the mob, he distributed heroin (not mentioned here), which certainly has. In fact, the heroin dealing of the Gotti crew was at the root of the murderous dispute with his own doomed boss, Paul Castellano. It's an omission that amounts to a severe distortion of the man and his legacy.
Directed by Kevin Connolly. With John Travolta, Stacy Keach, Kelly Preston, Ella Blue Travolta, Leo Rossi. Distributed by Vertical Entertainment.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.
Parents guide: R (violence, language)
Playing at: Area theaters