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Overly reverent bio-pic 'Gotti' strands a solid John Travolta performance in less-than-epic drama

Overly reverent bio-pic 'Gotti' strands a solid John Travolta performance in less-than-epic drama
Chris Kerson, left, and a terrific John Travolta in the movie "Gotti." (Brian Douglas / Sunrider Productions / Vertical Entertainment)

The long gestating and theatrically delayed “Gotti” is hardly the dud its inauspicious Cannes Film Festival premiere last month, its original direct-to-VOD release plan and its lack of advance critics’ screenings might lead one to believe. That said, it’s also not particularly strong.

Although this unsettlingly sympathetic biopic covering around the last 30 years in the life of famed New York mobster John Gotti is mostly well-acted and frequently entertaining, it bites off more than it can — or even needs to — chew, packing it all into a less-than-epic running time.

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If there’s any reason to see this film, directed with more reverence than chops by Kevin Connolly (Eric from HBO’s “Entourage”), it’s for the terrific title turn by John Travolta who channels the many facets of the code-conscious Gotti’s dubious persona — from warm, loving and charismatic to coarse, volatile and ruthlessly ambitious — with deep and credible commitment. If only all that great work was in the service of a wholly better movie.

The episodic script by Lem Dobbs and Leo Rossi leapfrogs through the highlights — or lowlights, as the case may be — of Gotti’s violent rise to power through the ranks of the notoriously rich and powerful Gambino crime family. These include Gotti’s arrests, trials, acquittals (which earned him the nickname “Teflon Don”), incarcerations and eventual sentence to life in prison, where he ultimately died (in 2002 at age 61) of throat cancer.

Much of the film, shot in Cincinnati for New York, tracks Gotti’s variable relationships and faceoffs with his fellow gangsters such as Neil Dellacroce (Stacy Keach), Frank DiCicco (Chris Mulkey), Sammy “The Bull” Gravano (William DeMeo), Willie Boy Johnson (Chris Kerson), Paul Castellano (Donald John Volpenhein), Bobby Boriello (Rossi) and longtime friend and “brother” Angelo Ruggiero (Pruitt Taylor Vince).

Unfortunately, there’s an interchangeable quality to some of these and the other crime figures seen here, despite on-screen identifiers, as the film flips through a complicated, at times confusing web of tenuous dynamics, illicit actions and betrayals. (We also never get much sense of the true breadth and depth of the Gambinos’ criminal activity.)

Still, the script makes ample room for dramas involving Gotti’s blood family including wife Victoria (Travolta’s real-life spouse, Kelly Preston); his second-born son, Frankie (Nico Bustamante), who was killed in a minibike accident at age 12; and most especially — and successfully — Gotti’s oldest son and successor (and author of the memoir upon which the movie is based) John Jr. (a solid Spencer Rocco Lofranco).

Connolly’s use of hit period tunes to accompany the film’s succession of years can feel a bit perfunctory and on-the-nose. In addition, the vibrant, rap-infused score by Pitbull, which features three solo tracks by the popular artist, doesn’t quite jibe with the movie’s general style and tone. On the surface, however, it wasn’t that illogical of a musical choice given the countless times Gotti has been referenced in rap songs.

More effective is the inclusion of archival news clips and other footage of the real John Gotti and his family and associates to punctuate key events and transitions. But closing reportage of everyday New Yorkers brashly extolling Gotti’s virtues upon his death, painting him, without any irony, as some kind of local hero, pretty much tells you where this picture’s coming from.

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'Gotti'

Rating: R for strong violence and pervasive language

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Playing: In general release

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