FILM REVIEW – SPEED KILLS. With John Travolta, James Remar, Kellan Lutz, Tom Sizemore, Matthew Modine. Written by David Aaron Cohen and John Luessenhop. Directed by Jodi Scurfield. Rated R for language, some violence and drug material. 102 minutes.
In any other year, SPEED KILLS would be the most laughably incompetent gangster movie starring John Travolta. Alas, 2018 also brought us “Gotti,” a risible botch job directed by the dwarf who plays E on “Entourage,” which in its nauseating immorality insisted that the Teflon Don got a bum rap and positioned this murderous dirtbag as an aspirational figure of endangered masculine values in a fallen world of pussies and finks. It’s an astoundingly stupid, tedious and ugly-spirited picture, full of angry-old-man axe-grinding and clownish goombah posturing.
By contrast “Speed Kills” is merely inept, poorly fictionalizing the life of Don Aranow — the cigarette boat manufacturer who was pals with George H.W. Bush and famously outfitted the DEA with a fleet of boats slower than the ones he was selling to smugglers. (There’s a pretty good “30 For 30” on ESPN about Aranow, and at one point the late Tony Scott was set to make a film about his life.) For some reason screenwriters David Aaron Cohen and John Luessenhop have chosen to toss out most of the interesting stuff in Aranow’s story, rechristening him “Ben Aranoff” and saddling the speedboat magnate with clichéd ties to notorious mob boss Meyer Lansky, sluggishly played here by James Remar.
The film begins in 1987 with Travolta staring down a hitman (special guest star Tom Sizemore) and flashing back twenty-five years to tell us his story before shuffling off to his eternal reward. There’s hilariously little attention to period detail and no attempt to age the star accordingly. (His sideburns look a little longer in the seventies but that’s about it.) Travolta seems to wear the same denim shirt throughout several decades, and the movie apparently could only afford one or two boats, which presents a bit of a problem when you’re shooting so many boat races.
Set in Miami but certainly not shot there, “Speed Kills” is severely short on sandy beaches and palm trees. It’s always overcast and even the water looks grey. Very few extras mill about on underdressed sets, and my personal favorite part is a big party celebrating Meyer Lansky’s return from Israel, with exactly two people standing listlessly under a banner that reads “WELCOME HOME MEYER” in blue lettering and for some reason, scare-quotes.
The dumbed-down story is boilerplate Mafia swill, with Aranoff earning the ire of Lansky’s dipshit nephew Robbie Reemer (what a name!) played by Kellan Lutz, one of the “Twilight Saga” kids who will most decidedly not be basking in the arthouse glory of his former co-stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. Then Matthew Modine shows up as George H.W. Bush, a bizarre bit of stunt-casting that, like the rest of “Speed Kills,” feels like it should probably be more amusing than it actually is.
As in “Gotti,” Travolta just seems miserable, alternating between scrunching up his face like something smells bad and looking like he has to poop. It was only a couple years ago that this most erratic of actors gave a wonderfully wild performance as Robert Shapiro in “The People vs. O.J. Simpson.” This new late-career gangster phase plays against all his strengths — nobody wants to watch John Travolta be an angry hard-ass, and it’s worth remembering that while playing similar types in “Pulp Fiction” and “Get Shorty” he suffused the characters with a boyish, porcine self-delight. I miss that kind of joy in his work.
Early promotional materials credited co-writer John Luessenhop as the director of “Speed Kills,” but the film now purports to have been helmed by one Jodi Scurfield, who does not have any IMDB credits or photos and returns no results on a Google search. So I figure either Luessenhop wanted his name off the picture and made up an “Alan Smithee” style alter-ego to take the rap, or this Scurfield person was so embarrassed by his or her work that he or she elected to vanish entirely from public life. Either choice is understandable.•••
Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.