Director: Jodi Scurfield
Cast: John Travolta, Katheryn Winnick, Jennifer Esposito, James Remar, Matthew Modine, Kellan Lutz, Tom Sizemore
RunTime: 1 hr 42 mins
Rating: NC-16 (Some Coarse Language and Violence)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 22 November 2018
Synopsis: SPEED KILLS tells the story of Ben Aronoff (Academy Award winner John Travolta) as he suddenly relocates his family from New Jersey and settles in sunny Miami Beach, Florida. Once there, he falls in love with off-shore powerboat racing, wins multiple championships, and even builds the boats and sells them to high-powered clientele. But his long-established mob ties catch up with him when Meyer Lansky forces him to build boats for his drug-running operations. Desperate to free himself of mob obligations, he makes a bid to go completely legit. But the more he tries to wrestle free of Lansky’s grip, the more trapped he finds himself, and soon becomes the subject of the DEA’s investigation into drug smuggling. Caught in the middle, he decides, once again, to run…but it may be too late.
Just how dreadful you find ‘Speed Kills’ depends on whether you’ve seen John Travolta’s previous mob-related biopic – if you’ve seen ‘Gotti’, chances are that you’ll find his latest a lot more coherent; but if you haven’t, then well you might still be appalled at how low this former Hollywood A-lister has sunk.
Arguably, much of the blame belongs to the novice filmmakers who, for reasons we cannot quite figure out, were attached to direct these movies. In the case of ‘Gotti’, that was Kevin Connolly (yes, ‘E’ from HBO’s ‘Entourage’); and in this case, it is a certain Jodi Scurfield, who is making his directorial debut with this movie. That inexperience is blatantly visible right from the get-go – from the abrupt smash-cut edits, to the poorly choreographed and photographed motorboat racing scenes, and down to the voiceover narration that rushes viewers through key plot points.
Amidst a failure to grasp even the basics of filmmaking 101, you can still see that there is a story worth telling. Based on a true-crime book of the same name, the movie fictionalises the real-life entrepreneur Don Aronow as Ben Aronoff, a New Jersey construction contractor who moves to Miami and earns his success as a builder and seller of high-end speedboats, while becoming a competitive motorboat racer himself. Don was gunned down in 1987 in a presumed contract hit that went unsolved for many years, although it was always suspected that he had ran afoul of the mob.
Presumably to avoid legal ramifications, the film would have us believe that Ben was a reluctant player in the organised crime business; more specifically, Ben is coerced by no less than Meyer Lansky (James Remar) to launder the latter’s drug money in the Cayman Islands, and upon Meyer’s death, would continue to be harassed by Meyer’s even more irascible nephew Robbie Reemer (Kellan Lutz). Their day of reckoning would come with then-President Ronald Reagan’s war on organised crime, but before the law can catch up to Ben, Robbie would have ordered a bunch of guys (including one played by Tom Sizemore) to take Ben out instead.
It isn’t easy to condense a multi-decade saga into the span of a feature-length movie, but even so, writers David Aaron Cohen and John Lussenhop fail spectacularly. How Ben picks up the ropes of competitive racing is given such cursory treatment you’d think it’s no harder than breaking an egg; ditto his speedboat business, which seems to take off as naturally as the rising and setting of the sun. It doesn’t help that Ben’s success in the sport is portrayed here through a series of old news footage featuring the real Don Aronow, but intercut with pseudo-interviews of Travolta playing a smug and self-satisfied Ben.
Just as, if not more, problematic is the film’s handling of the less savoury aspects of Ben’s character. As it turns out, Ben is quite the skirt-chaser, and while touring the world competing in international races, neglects not just his business but also his family. Not only are the scenes of Travolta ogling and groping much younger women uncomfortable to watch, the movie suggests that all is right after he gifts his estranged son Andy (Charlie Gillespie), following his paralysis from a car wreck, a horse farm that the newly wheelchair-bound teen can run. The throwaway manner in which the film treats Ben’s first wife Kathy (Jennifer Esposito) suggests that Ben’s behaviour is to be forgiven and even condoned, especially since he proceeds soon after to leer at another woman Emily (Kathryn Winnick) whom he will make his second wife.
It isn’t just about how shallow its portrayal of Ben or his relationships with the people around him is; it is also about how these relationships are even depicted in the first place. Worse still, Travolta plays Ben as if his character’s hubris is to be embraced and celebrated, because hey winning is more important than anything else. There is little nuance in Travolta’s performance, and like ‘Gotti’, this almost seems like a vanity project for the 64-year-old star than anything else.
Like we said, the only consolation is that it is more watchable than ‘Gotti’, especially during its last third when it becomes no worse than a DTV movie. Notwithstanding, it is on the whole still a rather terrible film that doesn’t know what it wants to say about its key character or how downright sexist it comes off, which makes one even less forgiving of its clunky dialogue and clumsy direction. As far as we know, ‘Speed Kills’ could very well be a career-killing move for Travolta, and given his executive producer credit on this as well as ‘Gotti’, he has only himself to blame.
(There is no depth, no nuance and ultimately no point to this fact-based mob biopic, that with reference to its title, is probably the cause of death of John Travolta's acting career more than anything else)
Review by Gabriel Chong