Earlier this year, John Travolta scored a cache of well-earned contempt, thanks to MoviePass waging a sort of terroristic marketing campaign for Gotti, a biopic about the titular notorious NYC mobster directed by Kevin Connolly (yes, "E" from HBO's Entourage). The ensuing minor social media fracas backfired (or, perhaps, succeeded, depending on how cynical you are), causing a legion of folks to seek out the ill-advised programmer, only to mercilessly mock it.
Some even championed the picture as a "so bad it's good” gem, courtesy of the moments where Travolta (in full fucking "New Yawk" mode) addresses the camera like some linguini-scarfing martyred saint, explaining how John Gotti was really a man of the people, persecuted by the government. It's a full-throated DTV Scorsese knock off, aimed squarely at meat-headed Trump voters, extolling this weird worldview where crime pays. If you're caught, it's really an act of injustice, as everybody is obviously only out to get the hardworking crooks at the top, who were always scheming with their working-class brothers and sisters in mind.
In this continued era of "Travoltasploitation" – which has arguably been chugging along for a while now, on both the big screen (via Pierre Morel's action howler From Paris With Love) and in Redbox-ready trash (such as Chuck Russell's I Am Wrath) – Speed Kills is officially the Right-leaning, VOD Blow to Gotti's garish Goodfellas. Based on Arthur J. Harris' true crime tome Speed Kills: Who Killed the Cigarette Boat King, The Fastest Man On the Seas? Travolta's latest glorification of a scummy tycoon is slightly more morally conflicted than Connolly's blatant work of abominable hero worship, yet still treats its central launch mogul as an honorable man who pulled himself up by the bootstraps.
Naturally, this self-made millionaire is Shanghaied by both the shady characters he gets into bed with, as well as the government entities who knew his high-powered vessels would inevitably be used to import large quantities of narcotics. There's certainly some "truth is stranger than fiction" weirdness tossed in for good measure (as Matthew Modine joins the game late, doing an impersonation of George Bush Sr.), but Speed Kills is primarily another showcase for the fallen movie star's addiction to ghoulish, bronzer-slathered caricatures. Concurrently, one can’t help but do some armchair analysis as the movie plays, wondering what has spawned Travolta’s ostensible artistic persecution complex.
In reality, Don Aronow (Travolta) was a thrill-seeking daredevil; storied creator of Michael Mann’s cherished "Go Fast” boat, which he raced around the world, and primarily used to pick up really, really good-looking women in string bikinis. Meanwhile, his put-upon wife (Jennifer Esposito) raised their brood back home. This is all in the movie, mind you, yet presented through a montage in the opening act, with Aronow only showing any signs of regret once his oldest (Charlie Gillespie) is paralyzed in a car wreck.
But even then, Don basically buys the kid's affection back by gifting him a horse farm that the newly wheelchair-bound teen can run. Because in Travolta's bizarre straight white dude fantasy of America, there’s no real ethical conflict that money can't resolve, and the only Jiminy Cricket Aronow heeds is his jittery lawyer (aging Charlie Day precursor Michael Weston), whom he waves off half the time. Because really, what good is a guilty conscience when you can just zoom away from your problems and bed another buxom, beautiful bubblehead?
Buzzing along on a wavelength of quasi-competency (fun fact: Pulp Fiction cinematographer Andrzej Sekula shot this), Speed Kills is (much like Gotti) remarkably watchable, accented with the occasional cartoon character supporting turn (wait until you get a load of James Remar's Meyer Lansky). Sure, there’s some chop to these seas – a full CGI race sequence during a hurricane needs to be seen for its ineptitude to be believed – but this isn’t some out and out shitshow. In fact, it’s tough to really knock the movie’s technical merits (or lack thereof) once you hold it up next to whatever dreck Nicolas Cage just shat out into a McDonald’s parking lot (I’m looking at you USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage).
Nevertheless, the real draw remains Travolta; sporting ghoulish contacts and put-putting about scenes like a demented car salesman, he's cranked up to nine (but never quite reaches the eleven of his Bob Shapiro in The People v. OJ Simpson). Unlike Cage (who often sleepwalks through his own versions of these Cannon-esque paycheck gigs), Travolta is truly giving it his all, wanting us to believe in this Southern fried dork turned criminal conspirator. The only times it's truly tough to buy into his manufactured tough guy nonsense is when he's bedding the latest model he encounters (such as Katheryn Winnick, doing a decent Margot Robbie impersonation as Aronoff's future wife, Emily Gowen). In these moments, he comes off like Rock Hudson in Pretty Maids All In A Row: full-tilt leathery lothario posturing that’s fairly easy to see right through.
Obviously, the mileage one gets out of a piece of plain trash such as Speed Kills is going to depend on the individual's threshold for (or embracement of) the film and star's horrific lack of self-awareness. What sets Travolta's recent descent into the depths of DTV exploitation apart from his peers’ is the fact that these all seem like the very definition of "vanity projects", only there's no beauty to be discovered.
If anything, Speed Kills is another act of self-debasement from a star who was once one of the sexiest, edgiest men in Hollywood during his glory days and subsequent revival (think: his work with Brian De Palma or post-Fiction collaborations with John Woo). Now, all that's left is a sentient hunk of spray-tanned bacon with some shoddy Brillo pad hair plugs, hollering about wanting to kick his adversaries’ asses and screw their women. To wit, there's entertainment to be had here, but it's unclear whether Travolta realizes most of the audience is laughing at him, instead of swooning in ecstasy at his macho endeavors.
Speed Kills is in select theaters and on VOD now.